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Pirates focus on starting pitching at winter meetings

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington goes into this week's MLB winter meetings with about $15 million to spend on free agents, the first pick in the Rule 5 draft in his pocket, and a handful of trade possibilities on his mind.

"Now comes the fun part," Huntington said.

The annual confab of front-office executives, scouts and other MLB officials runs Monday through Thursday at the Swan Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It wraps up Thursday morning with the Rule 5 draft.

Because they had the worst record in the majors this past season, the Pirates get the top pick in the Rule 5 draft. Huntington has used the draft in each of his three seasons as GM to get Evan Meek, Donnie Veal and John Raynor.

The draft pool consists of prospects who were not protected on 40-man rosters. Any player selected must stay on the active (25-man) roster all season or be offered back to his original team for half of the $50,000 claim fee.

The Pirates have four empty spots on their 40-man roster, so in theory, they could draft up to four Rule 5 players. However, it's rare that a team takes more than one because it's hard to stash newbies on the active roster.

The Pirates could get around that by taking a pitcher — a reliever or a back-end starter, such as Tampa Bay's Aneury Rodriguez — who can survive in the majors and a last-guy-on-the-bench position player.

For the first three days of the meetings, the focus will be on free agents and trades. The Pirates are seeking one or two starting pitchers, a right fielder and/or first baseman with some power, and, if there's a good fit, a upgrade at shortstop.

"We have ongoing dialogue," Huntington said. "Much like the past three winter meetings, we expect to continue dialogues. If something lines up, we'll do something. If not, we'll move forward."

The Pirates rarely make a splashy free-agent signing. Although they have contacted some top-shelf players over the past few weeks, that doesn't figure to change this year.

When talking Thursday after minor-league free agent Fernando Nieve, who signed with the Pirates earlier in the week, Huntington indicated the Pirates soon will ink at least a starter or two.

"We signed him with the intent of giving him the opportunity (to start), but we'll see where our numbers are as we head toward spring training," Huntington said. "We've asked him to come to spring training ready to compete as a starter. The next two months will dictate whether that plan stays the same on Feb. 15 as it was on Dec. 2."

After losing out on top target Jorge de la Rosa, who re-signed with Colorado, the Pirates will turn their attention to lower-tier free agents such as Aaron Heilman. They also have checked out four veteran pitchers trying to rebound from injuries — Jeff Francis, Brandon Webb, Justin Duchscherer and Chris Young.

Notes: Andy Marte, a non-roster invitee to spring training, will get looks at first and third bases. "He'll be in camp competing for that corner utility spot," Huntington said. "We still feel there's some upside remaining. We'll see if we can help him reach the potential that remains."

Additional Information:

For your consideration

Players the Pirates might consider taking in the Rule 5 draft:

Aneury Rodriguez, rhp, Rays • Only 22, with three solid pitches

Wynn Pelzer, rhp, Orioles • Good relief prospect with 94 mph fastball

Brandon Waring, 1b/3b, Orioles • Hit 22 HRs this year, but also had 179 strikeouts

Marquez Smith, 3b, Cubs • Decent power hitter, can also play 2b

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