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Lose 106 games in a season and 19 in a row, as the Royals did last year, and it's a chore convincing free agents to take you seriously. Nobody cares that the jazz is great in town, the barbecue is better, or that Kansas City is the home of Hallmark Cards and Russell Stover Candies.

Finish below .500 for 13 straight seasons, as the Pirates have done, and players ignore you by force of habit. It hardly matters that PNC Park might be the prettiest of all the new venues or that Pittsburgh is the only city rated among the top five most livable in three editions of the "Places Rated Almanac."

Baseball fans in Kansas City and Pittsburgh have grown accustomed to lousy seasons punctuated by uneventful winters that give way to scant hopes every spring. You won't read a lot about that in the Chamber of Commerce brochures.

But this offseason promised to be different. The Pirates and Royals, revenue-sharing brothers in arms, both vowed to increase their payrolls significantly this winter. Maybe it was a way to quell growing fan unrest or a means to avoid becoming the focus of Players Association bellyaching with a new labor agreement looming. For suffering season-ticket holders, the motivation hardly mattered.

Unfortunately, the free-spending climate in November and December threatened to gum up the works. The market took an upward spike, and even middling free agents had enough options to pick and choose. The Pirates made a run at Bill Mueller only to lose out to the Dodgers. The Royals offered Paul Byrd three years and $21 million, but he spurned them for a two-year, guaranteed $14.25 million contract with Cleveland.

For afterthought franchises, it was all about grinding and selling until mercifully, someone agreed to take your cash.

"The biggest thing was changing the perception and convincing players and the industry that we are going after guys, that we are spending money and taking a huge step forward here," said Muzzy Jackson, assistant to Royals general manager Allard Baird. "You look for that one guy who signs and says, 'I believe in what you're doing.' Once that happens, other guys say, 'Oh, they're serious.' That was the toughest part early."

In the end, the final inventory in Kansas City and Pittsburgh was more utilitarian and functional in nature than downright headline-grabbing. In assessing free-agent hauls, "a huge step forward" is in the eye of the beholder.

Here's the rundown of the teams' respective additions:

The Royals signed two new everyday infielders, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who bring 32 letters and a raft of experience to the right side. They added a starting outfielder (Reggie Sanders) and a backup catcher (Paul Bako), picked up starters Scott Elarton and Joe Mays, and fortified the bullpen with Elmer Dessens.

The Pirates' biggest move might have come in October, when they hired Jim Tracy as manager. They traded utility man Rob Mackowiak to the White Sox for lefty reliever Damaso Marte and sent starter Dave Williams to Cincinnati for first baseman Sean Casey. The Pirates also picked up reliever Roberto Hernandez, and they signed third baseman Joe Randa and right fielder Jeromy Burnitz to one-year deals at a combined cost of $10.7 million.

The Pirates and Royals even swung a trade, with Pittsburgh sending lefty Mark Redman to Kansas City for minor-leaguer Jonah Bayliss in December.

So what's the end result? Scan the two lists, and you'll find several "good clubhouse guys" who'll fit well in any building program. Teammates and professional role models just don't come any better than Casey, Randa or Sanders. And there's not an albatross contract to be found. Sanders' two-year, $10 million deal was the most extravagant of the bunch.

Still, the Royals and Pirates failed to land a bona fide impact player with their combined $30 million in upgrades. As a result, a lot of things still have to go right for Pittsburgh to make the jump from 67 victories to .500 this season.

For the Royals, who play in a killer division with the Indians, Twins and world champion White Sox, the outlook appears grimmer.

"There's another 100-loss iceberg dead ahead," said an American League front-office man. Well, 90 for sure.

Baird, whose energy and passion make you root for him even when you question some of his moves, makes constant reference to "sticking with the plan." That's code for developing players from within and exhausting all the options. This week, Baird traveled to Australia on a scouting mission to help establish the Royals' presence there.

In the short term, the Royals hope their new starters can take some heat off Zack Greinke, who suffered through a 5-17, 5.80 debacle at age 21. And the entire pitching staff should benefit from a more competent defense. Mientkiewicz will save shortstop Angel Berroa and third baseman Mark Teahen some errors, and he allows Mike Sweeney to park himself at DH, where he can stay healthy and refrain from going near a glove.

Sanders is 38 years old and making a late career transition to the American League. That didn't work out too well for Steve Finley, did it? But Sanders was a threat to finish with 30 homers and 30 steals for St. Louis when he broke his leg in a collision after the All-Star break, and he absolutely crushed San Diego in the Division Series.

With Matt Stairs and Emil Brown logging the bulk of the cleanup at-bats in 2005, the Royals ranked last in the majors with 15 home runs at the No. 4 spot. If Sanders bats cleanup, he can't do much worse.

Kansas City has some power arms in the bullpen, but the absence of elite young position players makes it tough to be upbeat. The Royals love center fielder David DeJesus, a fine glove man with exceptional baseball instincts. But he's more a complementary piece than a franchise building block. Berroa, the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year, too often seems disengaged, and the jury is still out on catcher John Buck and Teahen, the linchpins of Baird's big Carlos Beltran trade two years ago.

For what it's worth, Teahen, Buck and Berroa all had great Septembers. They better find a way to maintain it, or the Ax Allard Web site might start getting more traffic.

As for the Kansas City farm system, it's thin on depth and bereft of pitching. The Royals have two terrific bats in the pipeline in Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. But most scouts regard Butler as a DH, and Gordon's professional exposure consists of 50 at-bats with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League.

In Pittsburgh, general manager Dave Littlefield's goal is to upgrade an offense that ranked 14th in the National League in runs and 12th in slugging percentage and homers. The Pirates also struck out 1,092 times, sixth highest total in the league. Combining whiffs with a lack of pop is a bad combination.

The team's new infield corner men won't do much to address the power void. While Casey batted .312 last year, he homered nine times in 528 at-bats and ranked 19th among 22 regular first basemen in slugging percentage. Randa banged out 43 doubles, but he's never hit more than 17 homers in a season.

Burnitz brings power, but at a price. His nine straight seasons of 100-plus strikeouts run counter to Tracy's desire for contact hitters, and he's 37 years old and bound to show signs of slippage one of these years. And if Burnitz is going to take at-bats from Craig Wilson, who's now a $3 million-plus bench player, what did Pittsburgh really gain?

The Pirates will ultimately succeed or fail with their next wave of talent. They're counting on Chris Duffy in center field, Ryan Doumit at catcher and Jose Castillo at second base. And they're hoping that 6-foot-5, 270-pound first baseman Brad Eldred will do more than just blot out the sun and hit tape-measure jobs in the minors. He'll wait his turn this season while Casey plays out the final, $8.5 million installment of his contract.

Pittsburgh's pitching staff is certainly intriguing. Zach Duke looks like the real thing. And if Paul Maholm continues to progress, Kip Wells puts up some numbers in his free-agent "walk" year, Oliver Perez rediscovers his pre-laundry-cart-kicking form and Sean Burnett rebounds from Tommy John surgery, Tracy and pitching coach Jim Colborn might be on to something.

As Cam Bonifay's eight-year tenure showed, the Pirates aren't a team to act rashly. Littlefield, like Baird, could feel the heat if things don't improve. But he's realistic enough to know the Pirates aren't going to spend their way to contention.

"Free agents are looking for dollars, opportunity and winning," Littlefield said. "We've been able to provide opportunity at times. But we haven't won as much as we'd like, and the dollars here haven't been as great -- although it's certainly getting better.

"We're not going to be in there for that A grade of free agent. And in the B's and C's, we'll be out there fighting it out like a lot of other ballclubs."

After months of planning, calling, courting and spending, the Pirates and Royals won the fight this winter by attrition. All that money plugged some holes, but did it give them legitimate reason for hope? We'll find out starting in April.

Imagine a free agent class that included Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Mike Bibby, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. Now that'd be something to save some salary cap space for, eh?

Well, all of those players can become free agents 18 months from now by exercising early termination clauses in their contracts, making the summer of 2007 shape up, at least potentially, as one of the greatest free agent classes in NBA history.

But for now, we have the summer of 2006 to look forward to, and let's just say that this year's class wouldn't do all that well in a pickup game against the 2007 class. What's more, there's very little chance that the No. 1 player on the 2006 list will even go on the market.

But there still are some intriguing players, and we'll take an early stab at a top 25:

1. Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons (Unrestricted)
Don't expect Big Ben to tower over the market. Pistons president Joe Dumars and Wallace will quietly work out a four-year contract (anything longer would bring the dreaded "over-36" rule into play) likely starting somewhere in the area of $11-12 million per year. Wallace will be eligible to earn much more -- as a 10-year veteran he can get a deal with a starting salary equal to 35 percent of the salary cap ($18.2 million if the cap comes in at $52 million) -- but all indications, including his plans to have an attorney rather than an agent do the contract, point to his staying with the powerhouse Pistons.

2. Al Harrington, Atlanta Hawks (Unrestricted)
Harrington, just 25, will have eight years of NBA service time when this season is complete. His free agent deal can be worth as much as 30 percent of the cap ($15.6 million if the cap is $52M), although few would judge the athletic small forward as a max player. Although he'll be one of the few quality free agents out there, if Chicago spends its cap space on someone else, his options might come down to New Orleans and Charlotte -- or a sign-and-trade deal to a team willing to pay Harrington's price. If Atlanta decides to trade Harrington before the Feb. 23 deadline, his new team will acquire his Bird rights and can exceed the cap to retain him.

3. Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks (Unrestricted)
Just two years after losing Steve Nash, the Mavs could be in position to have another playmaker bolt town if the market brings Terry an offer that owner Mark Cuban would not want to match. But the Mavs have Terry's Bird rights and can give him a deal with 10.5 percent raises, while other teams could offer only 8 percent annual raises. Terry will likely succeed in getting a five- or six-year deal, and it's a safe bet at this point that the Mavs will keep him.

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, Seattle SuperSonics (Unrestricted)
They don't come much more one-dimensional than Radmanovic, the 6-foot-11 sharpshooter who knocked down eight 3-pointers Sunday against the Knicks and somehow grabbed 12 rebounds Monday against Philly. After turning down a $42 million offer from Seattle last summer in favor of a one-year tender, Radmanovic needed to play to boost his value. He wasn't playing under Bob Weiss, but Bob Hill is starting him and drawing up new plays to get him open looks. He's only 25 and many believe he has more long-term upside than his countryman and fellow free agent Peja Stojakovic.

5. Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento Kings (Early termination option)
Peja ranked below Vlad? Well, just look at the way Stojakovic's numbers have deteriorated from where they were two years ago -- his scoring average has dropped from 24.2 to 17.0, he's making less than 40 percent of his 3-pointers, and his overall shooting percentage is his worst since his rookie season. Maybe that's a product of the miserable season the Kings are having, or maybe it's a sign that Stojakovic's skills are already deteriorating at age 28, when he's on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime contract opportunity.

6. Nene, Denver Nuggets (Restricted)
The Nuggets are of the belief that some team will make Nene an offer that they'll have no interest in matching, which is why they've been listening to trade proposals from teams interested in acquiring the 23-year-old Brazilian who blew out his knee the day after turning down an extension from Denver.

7. Mike James, Toronto Raptors (Player option)
It's time for the 30-year-old to cash in, having gone from journeyman to career backup to starter in Toronto, where he's the steadiest offensive player for the Raptors, with the exception of Chris Bosh. After Terry, he's looking like the best free agent-to-be guard out there.

8. Bobby Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies (Unrestricted)
It gets crowded quickly when you talk about the number and the quality of free agent point guards, and this former Sixth Man Award winner falls into the mix somewhere along with James, Speedy Claxton and Sam Cassell.

9. Joel Przybilla, Portland Trail Blazers (Unrestricted)
Portland has received steady, if unspectacular, production from the 7-foot-1 26-year old already in his eighth NBA season. A strong second half of the season could up his value past the mid-level exception.

10. Caron Butler, Washington Wizards (Restricted)
If there aren't many personnel changes in Washington between now and the end of the season, don't count on the Wizards letting go of the last asset they have remaining from the Kwame Brown pick of 2001.

11. Speedy Claxton, New Orleans Hornets (Unrestricted)
Despite being stuck all season behind Rookie of the Year front-runner Chris Paul, Claxton ranks third in scoring, second in assists and second in steals on the Hornets.

12. Sam Cassell Los Angeles Clippers (Unrestricted)
This summer will mark one of the few instances during the past decade when Cassell will not be unhappy with his contract. Believing he has been underpaid throughout his career, Sammy wants one more deal.

13. Bonzi Wells, Sacramento Kings (Unrestricted)
There remain plenty of character issues concerning Wells, who was sent home by the Grizzlies last season right when the playoffs began. He's out for the rest of this month with a torn groin muscle.

14. Michael Olowokandi, Minnesota Timberwolves (Unrestricted)
The plan when Kandi Man signed a three-year deal in Minnesota was to take a three-year chance on establishing a higher value than the mid-level exception he signed under. Three years later, he's still worth the mid-level only.

15. Nazr Mohammed, San Antonio Spurs (Unrestricted)
The dropoff behind Ben Wallace in terms of free agent centers brings us all of the way down to No. 15. Mohammed has been used sparingly behind Rasho Nesterovic this season, although that could change if San Antonio moves him before the trade deadline.

16. Latrell Sprewell, Minnesota Timberwolves (Unrestricted)
Former teammate Rick Brunson told the New York Daily News that he spoke recently to Sprewell and expects him to sit out until March before signing with a contender.

17. Tim Thomas, Chicago Bulls (Unrestricted)
Look for Thomas to be dealt by the deadline or bought out after afterward so he can reestablish some value before going on the market. The Bulls are paying him, but have told him they don't want him around.

18. Keith Van Horn, Dallas Mavericks (Unrestricted)
There's going to be a huge pay cut for Van Horn, the No. 2 overall pick in 1997. He's making $15.7 for the Mavericks.

19. Matt Harpring, Utah Jazz (Unrestricted)
There will end up being a job someplace in the NBA for Harpring, who is being limited to 25 minutes per game while working back from a knee injury.

20. Chris Wilcox, Clippers (Restricted)
One of the few players who might actually end up playing for the team with which he signs an offer sheet next summer, since the Clips won't match anything too long. Los Angeles might trade him before the Feb. 23 deadline, however.

21. Lorenzen Wright, Memphis Grizzlies (Unrestricted)
The Grizz are still waiting for some consistent production from the big man whose numbers peaked a half-decade ago.

22. Trevor Ariza, New York Knicks (Restricted)
The Knicks will likely match any offer for the youngster from UCLA derided as "delusional" by coach Larry Brown just a few days ago.

23. Melvin Ely, Charlotte Bobcats (Restricted)
Another player who could be moved before the trading deadline. 'Cats likely won't be interested in paying him what he'll get on the open market.

24. Jorge Garbajosa, Unicaja Malaga
Not a true free agent, as his Spanish League contract has only a buyout clause, but would be the most sought after big man coming out of Europe if he could manage to get out of his current contract.

25. Drew Nicholas, Benetton Treviso
He has been called a poor man's Eddie House, an undersized shooting guard (from Maryland) who's currently leading the Euroleague in scoring at 18.8.


Unrestricted: Chucky Atkins, Wizards; Marcus Banks, Celtics; Jon Barry, Rockets; Tony Battie; Magic; Rasual Butler, Hornets; Kelvin Cato, Magic; Reggie Evans, SuperSonics; Devean George, Lakers; Lindsey Hunter, Pistons; Toni Kukoc, Bucks; Flip Murray, SuperSonics; Jannero Pargo, Bulls; Gary Payton, Heat; Nick Van Exel, Spurs; David Wesley, Rockets.

Restricted: Keith Bogans, Bobcats; Antonio Burks, Grizzlies; Francisco Elson, Nuggets; Drew Gooden, Cavaliers; Jared Jeffries, Wizards; Fred Jones, Pacers; John Salmons, 76ers; Jiri Welsch, Bucks.

Player options: Derek Anderson, Rockets; Ryan Bowen, Rockets; Greg Buckner, Nuggets; Eddie House, Suns; Mark Jackson, Nets; Jeff McInnis, Nets; Mikki Moore, Sonics; Ruben Patterson, Trail Blazers; James Posey, Heat; Darius Songaila, Bulls; DeShawn Stevenson, Magic; Maurice Taylor, Knicks; Chris Webber, 76ers; Eric Williams, Raptors.

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