Pirates will wait out free-agent market

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007

When shopping for free agents this offseason, the Pirates will not look any further than the bargain bin.

The Pirates could use a power-hitting third baseman, but Alex Rodriguez is out of the question. A left-handed bat with some pop would fit well in the lineup, but Barry Bonds is not the answer. A fleet-footed outfielder would be great, but Andruw Jones will not be wearing black and gold.

"We are not going to sign a big-name player," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.

Eligible players have until Monday to declare free agency. Tuesday is the first day free agents can negotiate and sign with teams other than their former clubs.

"There are some values at the lower end of the free-agent market," team president Frank Coonelly said. "But we're not going to be spending just so we can say we spent some money this offseason."

Unlike last winter, the Pirates are not seeking a right-handed starting pitcher. Even if Matt Morris (and his $9.5 million contract) is traded, there would seem to be enough in-house candidates for the rotation.

The Pirates could use a right-handed reliever, a center fielder (particularly one with the speed to bat leadoff) and a lefty-hitting third baseman or right fielder.

Although the Pirates have vowed to increase their presence in the Asian market, don't look for them to land Kosuke Fukudome. The 30-year-old outfielder is the hottest free agent coming out of the Japanese Central League this year, but is out of the Pirates' price range.

Some "value-priced" relievers the Pirates might consider include David Riske, Doug Brocail, Shawn Camp and Scott Linebrink.

Only two Pirates, pitchers Tony Armas and Shawn Chacon, have filed for free agency. Neither is likely to return.

Chacon made $3.825 million last season, which is more than the Pirates are willing to pay for a right-handed setup reliever.

Armas did little to earn the $3.5 million contract he was given last winter and was twice removed from the starting rotation. Coonelly lumps Armas with the Pirates' other recent free-agent busts -- high-priced, past-their-prime players who did nothing to improve the team's long-term outlook.

"Signing guys like Jeromy Burnitz is not going to move the needle," Coonelly said. "We're not going to sign another Tony Armas -- players who are only marginally better than someone you can sign for the major league minimum. Instead, we will plow that money it into player development."

On the day manager John Russell was hired, Coonelly said the Pirates "do not have a target number" for their 2008 payroll. That will soon change, now that two key members of the baseball operations team -- scouting director Greg Smith and player personnel director Kyle Stark -- finally are in place.

Most likely, the Pirates' payroll next season will end up somewhere between $45 million and $50 million. That includes the automatic raises of at least $10,000 apiece for players with less than three years of major-league experience.

The Pirates have seven players eligible for arbitration: Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez, Josh Phelps, Adam LaRoche, Jose Castillo, Jose Bautista and John Grabow. Combined, that group made $11.84 million in 2007.

Castillo ($1.9 million) and Phelps ($600,000) might not be tendered contracts for 2008. The others are certain to get raises. Sanchez and LaRoche, who are in their second years of arbitration eligibility, could be offered multi-year deals.

Once the free-agent market kicks into high gear Tuesday, don't be surprised if the Pirates stand pat. They probably won't make any move until at least the winter meetings, which begin three weeks from tomorrow.

Coonelly said the reason for the delay isn't because the new front office team must finish assessing every player in the Pirates' system.

"We know the organization," Coonelly said. "We know what we have and we know our needs. We're going to pursue players who fit within our budget and within our needs."

And that means waiting until the prices drop.

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