Pirates to seek pitching in free-agent market

Pirates to seek pitching in free-agent market

PITTSBURGH -- Solely from the standings standpoint, no one has more work to do this winter than the Pirates.

A 105-loss team in 2010, the Pirates are plenty enthused about a number of young emerging pieces, pieces that the organization believes can be built around for years. Now, the task is to do that building.

With the free-agent market opening for all Sunday, it isn't clearly known how many of Pittsburgh's deficiencies are going to be solved through free-agent signings. In his three previous seasons as the club's general manager, Neal Huntington has yet to allocate significant financial resources into luring free agents to Pittsburgh.

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This year has the chance to be different, Huntington has said, because the Pirates do enjoy the financial means to be more aggressive. The catch, though, is that the free-agent market is thin in the Pirates' primary areas of need, and low supply can increase player demands.

"We're going to have to be intelligent about how we go about it," Huntington acknowledged. "While we definitely want to upgrade, we've got to make sure it's the right move. We want to upgrade and improve in every facet that we can, but we have to be intelligent about how we use our resources both long-term and short-term."

Though many of Huntington's past free-agent acquisitions signed one-year deals, the GM said that he isn't opposed to -- and on the starting-pitching front, may actually prefer -- offering multiyear contracts.

Even still, the Pirates won't be players for the top crop of free agents. And if they get squeezed out of the middle tier, too, expect the club to get creative. That means adding through the Rule 5 Draft, through Minor League free-agent signings and through trades.

What Pittsburgh doesn't have to worry about is losing its own players to free agency. The club's lone free agent is Chan Ho Park, a 37-year-old reliever who will likely command only a Minor League deal this winter. As of Sunday, Park became free to negotiate with all clubs. Similarly, the Pirates are now able to begin negotiations with free agents from any other clubs.

So what is priority No. 1 for a Pittsburgh team that finished last in the NL in offense (.242 batting average), pitching (5.00 ERA) and defense (.979 fielding percentage) in 2010?

"That's a great question," Huntington answered. "Everything. I hate to say things like that because it seems to be such a negative statement, but the reality is that there is a reason we have lost 100-plus games and it is because we haven't pitched the way we needed to, we haven't played defense the way we needed to, we haven't scored runs the way we needed to."

Let the shopping begin.

Contract issues
Free agents: Chan Ho Park
Eligible for arbitration: Ronny Cedeno, Zach Duke, Joel Hanrahan, Jeff Karstens, Andy LaRoche, Wil Ledezma, Lastings Milledge, Delwyn Young, Ross Ohlendorf (possible Super Two)
Player options: None
Club options: None
Non-tender possibilities: Duke, LaRoche, Ledezma

Areas of need
First Base: The Pirates would love to make an addition here, preferably by adding someone with some power potential. What the Pirates do with their first-base situation is directly related to the team's right-field plans. Garrett Jones can obviously shift to either spot, so if the Pirates don't add a first baseman, he'll be the most likely fit to stay at the position. Other internal candidates include Steve Pearce and Jeff Clement.

Right field: As mentioned above, this is another question mark. Pittsburgh could use some combination of Jones, John Bowker and Milledge, or it could seek to make an upgrade here. The free-agent options are shallow, so the Pirates may have to fill this void by making a trade. If the Pirates don't use Ryan Doumit as trade bait, he'd be another option to step in if the Pirates don't make an addition.

Starting pitching: This is unquestionably the area where the Pirates need to focus their attention. Pittsburgh's starters lost 84 games in 2010, and besides Brad Lincoln, there is no one ready in Triple-A to step in immediately and help out. They won't be a player for Cliff Lee, but Huntington said the club will be aggressive in the middle-tier market and will be willing to offer a multiyear deal to lock someone down. The free-agent market for starting pitchers is quite thin, so the Pirates' best option might be a trade.

Relief pitching: The Pirates are set in the eighth and ninth innings, but they're going to need help getting to Evan Meek and Hanrahan. Huntington has done well piecing together a bullpen by signing pitchers to Minor League deals or low-cost Major League ones. Expect such a process again. The club won't spend much money in this area, but it will be active in looking for arms.

2011 Payroll
After opening the 2010 season with a payroll of about $35 million, the Pirates are expected to begin next season with a higher one. Part of the payroll increase will come naturally through raises players receive in arbitration. How much of an increase is seen, though, will ultimately depend on how active Pittsburgh becomes in the free-agent market. Without divulging a specific figure, Huntington said that he will have money to spend this offseason. But does that mean that money will actually be spent?

"It could because of the flexibility that we have," Huntington answered. "Yes, it can and it could."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.