Trading Brian Giles hurt, so did Aramis Ramirez and Jason Schmidt. It hurt every time really. A baseball executive's job is to build, not tear down his team in an annual red tag sale.

But come the weeks before trading deadline, all baseball came to find Dave Littlefield these last few years. The Pirates general manager always had somebody to sell. A center fielder who can hit .300? A starting pitcher? How about a catcher? The deals were consummated over the phone, sealed with a few faxes and off another budding superstar would go. All Littlefield asked for in return were a handful of your best prospects and some hope that maybe someday he wouldn't have to do this again.

"It's demoralizing in some ways," Littlefield said as he sat in the back of the press box at RFK Stadium last night. "I don't like the period of the trading deadline, there an uneasiness on the team then. There's a sense that you're giving up as the GM."

His mouth tightened.

"You hate to have that perception," he continued. "The goal is to win the World Series. You try to keep in mind the big picture."

The big picture was always money -- the Pirates had little of it -- and an idea that a bevy of prospects could someday grow together to become something big. Finally that might be starting to happen.

The phone is already ringing again. Littlefield has more players that everybody else wants. Reliever Jose Mesa, with an option on his contract after this year is an enticing pickup for a team desperate for bullpen help. So too is starting pitcher Kip Wells despite his 5-7 record and 4.36 ERA. Only this time things are different. Pittsburgh's finances -- with its payroll the third-lowest in the majors at $28 million a year -- are such that he doesn't have to dump any more salaries this summer.

"We have done well for awhile, we're in a better situation now," he said.

What a strange existence it must be, trying to build a team, to construct a winner while always having to pull the best player off the roster come mid-summer or season's end. The departed reads like a lineup for the All-Star Game: Jason Kendall at catcher, Giles in the outfield, Ramirez at third. Schmidt and Kris Benson as starting pitchers. But the Pirates being the Pirates, with tight finances, could not have kept them all, couldn't have kept more than one of them and have any hope at winning in the future.

"We liked Giles and Kendall [now with the Padres and A's], but are we better with one of them or [Matt] Lawton, [Jason] Bay and some of our other young guys?"

The answer seemed to have come a few weeks ago when the Pirates headed into a series at Yankee Stadium with a better record than the Yankees at 30-30. The Pittsburgh fans were positively giddy. Not only would the Pirates be able to escape the annual roster dump, they might even be able to add someone significant -- not another prospect but an honest to goodness, real live Major League player.

Then the Pirates proceeded to lose 11 of their next 15 and suddenly the talk of becoming buyers had dwindled.

"Look," Littlefield said grabbing a booklet of the most up-to-date standings. "We're six games under .500 [seven after losing last night], to get to a wild card spot, I haven't looked at the numbers lately but it's usually at 90-92 wins. Thirty-four and 40 doesn't get a wild card."

He talked about the Twins, with their recent success with a modest $56 million payroll and said he hoped the Pirates could be the same kind of team sometime soon. The pieces are falling into place. He has a starting rotation that is showing signs of growing up with Wells, Dave Williams, Mark Redman, Josh Fogg and Oliver Perez. Add in another couple hitters and a reliever and Pittsburgh could have something for the future.

Only then can Littlefield dream of transforming himself into a buyer. Until then he will have to be content with the notion of doing nothing come trade deadline. In many cities this would bury you as the irate fans demand some kind of improvement. But in Pittsburgh it's enough to cause everybody to celebrate.

Because simply sitting out the trading deadline is progress for the team that is usually a perpetual seller.

carpenterl@washpost.com