NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Insiders taking a hard look last summer at the Pirates' assets and shortcomings suggested the move that would improve their chances of sticking in the race: Trade Joel Hanrahan out of a deep bullpen to strengthen some weaker areas. Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington conceded Monday night, "Joel's value was probably highest last summer." So does Huntington regret not making the move many advocated?
"We were in competition. It's awful tough to trade your closer in that situation," Huntington said at the scene of baseball's Winter Meetings, where it's getting even tougher. Hanrahan is on the counter, and Huntington coyly conceded "activity picking up" around certain guys "since reports [of their availability] have gotten out." "And the fact we haven't announced any trades obviously means we haven't seen eye-to-eye on value," Huntington said, again speaking in general terms. However, the first-day perception is that even though the Pirates are seeking modest return for the right-hander who has banked 91 percent of his 84 save opportunities the last two years, they've been further low-balled by teams' offers. Teams apparently have two concerns, neither very sensible: Hanrahan's conditioning. He has always had a bit of a gut, never been a mound Adonis. And teams worry about the health of a reliever in a market in which we have already seen $12 million spent on two closers who missed all of 2012 after Tommy John surgeries (Joakim Soria by the Rangers and Ryan Madson by the Angels) with a possible third on deck (Brian Wilson). Hanrahan's performance down the stretch: A 5.00 ERA in nine September appearances. Well, you know what they say about closers feeling disarrayed without a save on the line. Due to the Pirates' reel, 15 of Hanrahan's last 18 outings came in non-save situations. That, plus the fact he pitched so infrequently in the last two months, might have contributed to the loss of sharpness. Whether or not Huntington succeeds in profitably moving Hanrahan -- his impending $7 million salary and post-2013 free agency must both be taken into account -- the GM feels good about the Pittsburgh bullpen. "Joel is our closer and we have guys to pitch in leveraged situations we're comfortable with," Huntington said, leaving unsaid the likelihood of those leverage guys moving up in the pecking order if Hanrahan is not at the top. Huntington of course would like to keep Jason Grilli in the group, remaining "engaged with a very positive guy, who has thrown the ball very well for us." But as long as the 36-year-old free agent keeps listening to two-year offers, the Pirates won't be in the picture. Huntington, who admitted letting Hanrahan's peak-value days pass by, oddly is walking a similar thin line with Garrett Jones, who is drawing growing interest after his 27-homer, 86-RBI season. For one, the Astros, seeking a designated hitter for their maiden season in the American League, may want a guy who this season destroyed them from the other side (.375, with four homers and 14 RBIs). In his best status-quo stance, Huntington expressed his expectation of a revival of the Gaby Sanchez-Jones first-base platoon. The GM is particularly optimistic about a strong bounceback season from Sanchez, who in 2010-11 totaled 38 homers and 163 RBIs for the Marlins, and hit .241 in 50 games following his Trade Deadline acquisition from Miami.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.