Pirates designate highest-paid player

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates essentially wrote off their nearly $5 million investment in underperforming second baseman Aki Iwamura by designating their highest-paid player for assignment on Wednesday.

The move cleared a 25-man roster spot for top prospect Pedro Alvarez, who was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis to start at third base.

Iwamura has been one of the majors' worst offensive players despite being paid $4.8 million, batting .182 with two homers and nine RBIs while striking out 31 times in 165 at-bats. Coming off major knee surgery last season with Tampa Bay, Iwamura showed minimal range defensively at second base.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said that if Iwamura isn't traded, he will be optioned to Indianapolis to try to regain his batting stroke and improve in the field.

"His focus is to re-establish himself as a major league player, and that's our focus," Huntington said. "Aki will get 100 percent commitment from us. We know he's better than this; he knows he's better than this."

Still, the Pirates were aware they might be dealing for damaged goods after Iwamura underwent major left knee surgery last season.

"When we saw him in September, we saw him move better than he moved here this year," Huntington said. "I wish we had a true answer as to what the difference is."

The Pirates rarely spend money for established players, but they are effectively writing off more than $10 million they devoted to trading for Iwamura, acquiring minor league first baseman Jeff Clement from Seattle in the Jack Wilson trade ($3.6 million) and to release utility infielder Ramon Vazquez, who was due $2 million this season.

That money represents nearly one-third of the Pirates' Opening Day payroll of $34,943,000 that was the majors' lowest.

Huntington, who is unsigned past this season, is aware that such moves reflect badly upon the person who made them.

"I look at this money as my own. Every single dollar we don't spend efficiently and effectively impacts me personally," Huntington said. "This isn't Monopoly money. This is real dollars. Every dollar we don't spend effectively in one area is a dollar we could have spent effectively somewhere else. These hits are real. Within the industry, these hits are relatively minor, but for me and for us, it's real."

After aggressively trading nearly every established player of value in the past two years -- including Jason Bay, Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, Tom Gorzelanny, Adam LaRoche, Nyjer Morgan and John Grabow -- the Pirates went into Wednesday night's game against the White Sox with a nine-game losing streak and NL-worst 23-41 record.

The Bay trade has been a major bust, with third baseman Andy LaRoche -- the key position player in the deal -- now going to the bench to make room for Alvarez, the No. 2 pick in the June 2008 draft.

Asked how owner Bob Nutting felt about such moves, Huntington said, "As good as [you] expect an owner to take it. No owner likes to have a general manager come to him and say, 'Hey, a significant investment I thought we should make and I thought would really help us hasn't, and we need to go into another direction. No owner should take that well."