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Pirates’ Salary Dump Not Over

Increased revenue sharing and the improved competitive balance of 2003 haven’t affected the Pittsburgh Pirates. They are nailing down anything that can move except for the players at PNC Park after a dismantling week in which owner Kevin McClatchy and General Manager Dave Littlefield dumped 25% of a $42-million payroll with more likely to be unloaded before Thursday’s trade deadline.

The Pirates sent closer Mike Williams to Philadelphia only a few days after he was their only representative to the All-Star game; traded left-handed reliever Scott Sauerbeck to Boston, and then dispatched center fielder Kenny Lofton and third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the Chicago Cubs.

Aside from veteran third baseman Jose Hernandez, the human strikeout machine who was obtained in the trade with Chicago, and erratic reliever Brandon Lyon, acquired from Boston, Pittsburgh’s only rewards were a lower payroll and a passel of midlevel prospects.

“Although you might not understand what we are doing, we have a plan in place,” Manager Lloyd McClendon said.

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The last series of plans have produced 11 consecutive losing seasons and an estimated $30 million in losses over the last three seasons.

“I’m not going to run the team into bankruptcy,” McClatchy said amid a sell-off that alienated fans already turned off by a whopping ticket-price increase McClatchy ordered after the positive response to the first season in PNC Park.

Littlefield cited the deflated salaries in last year’s free-agent market and said the recent moves will give him the financial flexibility to fill holes in what is expected to be a similar market next winter.

There may be more holes.

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It would not be a surprise if Brian Giles and/or Jason Kendall and/or pitcher Kris Benson were traded before the Thursday deadline. The San Diego Padres have shown interest in a Giles/Kendall package, the Dodgers, Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners continue to sniff around Giles, and the talented but fortitude-suspect Benson probably would have been traded to one of several pitching-hungry teams already if he hadn’t experienced shoulder discomfort in his last start.

Asked if he expected to remain with the Pirates beyond Thursday, Giles said, “Not by the looks of it. There are going to be more guys go.

“Just look at the ticker. It says we just traded [mascot] Cheese Chester to Milwaukee for the Italian sausage.”

If there was some bitterness among the remaining players on the buck-passing Bucs -- “They’re not paid to understand. They’re paid to play,” McClendon said -- Giles was the exception.

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“The team never played up to its capabilities before we started [making trades],” he said in Pittsburgh. “For us to sit here and point fingers at Dave Littlefield and Mac and say, ‘What are they doing breaking up the team?’ Shoot, we never showed them we can make a run at it.

“Obviously, the five-year plan they had wasn’t successful. I don’t know how many years they’re going to [go] on this one. It’s frustrating as a player wanting to win here because that’s probably not going to happen now for some time.”

Ticking Clock

Whether the trade comes too late to help the Cubs, struggling to stay alive in a division where the Houston Astros finally have their rotation back in order and are starting to resemble the team that has the best second-half differential (over the first half) in the majors since 1997, remains to be seen.

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At the least, Ramirez, 25, figures to fill a vacuum at third for some time. The 67 runs batted in that he brought from Pittsburgh made him the leader in a Cub lineup that ranked 10th in the National League in runs.

In part, an ankle injury last year made it difficult for the talented Ramirez to follow up his breakout season in 2001 (34 homers, 112 RBIs), but his work habits and focus have also been questioned and are considered a factor in his 24 errors.

Cub Manager Dusty Baker said he has heard the stories but isn’t going to judge anyone on the basis of rumors.

“Last year he wasn’t that good, but the year before he was great,” Baker said. “Hopefully, he can be great for us. When you are 25, there are always some things you have to work on. Maybe it will help him to pick up four or five games in the standings.”

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He may also benefit from joining fellow Dominicans Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou. Said Sosa: " ... Ramirez is just a young kid and has a beautiful future. Our team is going to look better now.”

Deal With It

Former Dodger reliever Matt Herges went from the basement to the penthouse when traded from San Diego to San Francisco last week.

The Giants are the third team he has pitched for in the 1 1/2 seasons since the Dodgers traded him to Montreal in the Guillermo Mota deal, a deal he is still angry about.

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“I was bitter, very bitter,” Herges said after joining the Giants. “I didn’t think I’d go anywhere. I spent eight years in the [Dodgers’] organization. They signed me. I loved the people over there. I had deep roots in that organization.... It’s not that I’m still bitter, but I’d still like to beat them.”

Herges did just that shortly before being traded to San Francisco, being credited with the win in a Padre victory over the Dodgers and saying it meant more to him than any of the 20 wins he achieved while with the Dodgers. He now has a chance to help bury the Dodgers in the NL West and he said he was especially thrilled to be with a defense “second to none” and in a park that is a “pitcher’s dream.”

“This is the anti-Coors Field,” he said of Pacific Bell Park.


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