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Pitching Relief

New Pirates GM has to sell us, and his bosses, on smarter ball.

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So soporific is the effect of Pittsburgh baseball that I promised myself I wouldn't write another Pirates column until they were .500. But now that the season is over for them, I guess 0-0 counts. And really, the mandate of the team's new general manager, Neal Huntington, intrigues me.

As we all are painfully aware, the Bucs haven't fielded a competitive team in forever. Boyz II Men had three hits in the top 100 the last time that happened. There's no excuse for that. We're talking Boyz II Men here, people.

Can Huntington turn this team around on a shoestring? It can be done, and his guiding mantra should be: It's not the economy, stupid; it's the scouting.

The root cause of pathetic, apathy-causing baseball is horrible talent evaluation. In a small market, it's an especially deadly sin. Huntington's first order of business should be a major shake-up in scouting, from top to bottom. I envision a blood-bath the magnitude of JFK's Thanksgiving Day Massacre, because a clean start is a good start for any administration. Maybe Huntington should shoot for Halloween?

Winning baseball is possible, even with current salary inequities; three of the five teams currently in the playoffs have smallish budgets. They are still playing largely because they scout better, smarter and more creatively.

There may not be a better model than Huntington's own professional springboard, the Cleveland Indians. In a market eerily similar to Pittsburgh, they spent just $61 million dollars in winning the hyper-competitive AL Central.

Arguably, the Indians' two best players are a product of savvy scouting. Drafted by Cleveland, and now in his seventh major-league season, C.C. Sabathia has turned into a Cy Young candidate, with a regular-season ERA of 3.21 and win-loss record of 19-7. Okay, it came at a team-high salary of $8.75 million, but that's still less than Matt Morris' $10 million, which bought us an ERA of 4.89 and a 10-11 record.

Grady Sizemore was drafted by Montreal and languishing in single-A ball before the Indians traded for him in 2002. Now he's the spark for that team, at a cost of just under $1 million.

It would probably be foolish for Huntington to expect the Nuttings to up the ante from $38 million to what Cleveland spends. But he should try to nudge them over the $50 million mark, into the range of two other playoff teams: the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, who spent $52 million and $54 million, respectively. That's just about $15 million over the Pirates' team salary for 2007. (Or just the combined salary of Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Morris ... not to pile on Morris, who seems like a decent fellow.)

Admittedly, scouting may not the only issue facing Huntington. More inspired coaching would be a big step in the right direction, but the players have to be in place. After all, the somnambulant Jim Tracy and the excitable Lloyd McClendon got similar results. Without smart changes to personnel on the field, the love-child of Danny Murtaugh and Jim Leyland couldn't win around here.

Few players in the current line-up should be safe, although there is a bit of raw material to work with. And the last thing we need is a repeat of Dave Littlefield's Aramis Ramirez fiasco, so it'd be best not to trade Jack Wilson unless Huntington can get a player comparable to Grady Sizemore in exchange. Besides, even with Wilson's limitations, I'm not sure you can even put a price tag on a player who actually wants to play in Pittsburgh.

If Huntington turns out to be more of the same -- another GM unable to win in Pittsburgh -- we can at least look on the bright side. We don't have to weather the storms of pennant races lost or playoff defeats. Other fans may risk the kinds of soul-crushing losses that only post-season baseball can bring, the kind of defeat that leaves you looking for answers and drinking the pain away.

Let the Cubs fans mope about that silly goat curse to their heart's content. We here in Pittsburgh know there are no baseball curses. Just bad baseball teams. 

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