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Cuban outfielder Cespedes draws the interest of Pirates

Even before he became a YouTube sensation, Cuban outfielder Yoennis Cespedes was on the Pirates' radar.

"He's an interesting player whom we've tracked for a number of years," general manager Neal Huntington said.

In a few days, Cespedes, who defected last year, will establish residency in the Dominican Republic. Major League Baseball then can declare him a free agent and set in motion what likely will be a record-setting bidding war.

Cespedes, 26, has prodigious power and last year broke Cuba's single-season home run record. The speedy center fielder also flashed his defensive skills, arm and linebacker-type physique in a 20-minute video called "The Showcase" that drew thousands of hits on YouTube . Scouts say Cespedes can be major league-ready this season.

By not coming to live in the United States right away, Cespedes remained ineligible for baseball's amateur draft. Instead, teams must submit bids to his agent, Adam Katz. After the high bid is revealed, teams may increase their offers.

The Pirates are expected to be among the bidders. However, the New York Yankees, Miami Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox are seen as likely frontrunners to sign Cespedes.

The highest contract for a Cuban player is the $30.25-million, six-year deal pitcher Aroldis Chapman got from the Cincinnati Reds in January 2010. At the Winter Meetings last month, several industry insiders predicted Cespedes will top Chapman's mark by at least $20 million — which, as usual, is bad news for the Pirates.

"We have placed our internal value on him," Huntington said, without divulging specifics. "If the bidding takes him above our value, we'll wish him the best with whoever signs him."

With Cespedes almost certainly out of reach, the Pirates could turn their attention to center fielder Jorge Soler, another Cuban defector. Soler, 19, also has a power bat, but he is less of a pure hitter and doesn't run or play defense as well as Cespedes.

The bidding frenzy around Cespedes probably will drive up the price for Soler; some say as high as $20 million. That's another price the Pirates might not be willing to pay.

Still, the Pirates have increased their efforts — and opened their wallet — to sign international players in recent years. In August 2010, they inked hard-throwing pitcher Luis Heredia out of Mexico for a team-record $2.6 million bonus. Last summer, Colombian outfielder Harold Ramirez got a $1.05 million deal.

Notes: Huntington said right-hander Charlie Morton remains on track with his rehab from hip surgery. "He's on as good of a schedule as we could've hoped for," Huntington said. Morton is expected to be able to rejoin the starting rotation in late April. ... The front office will hold its annual organizational meetings next week in Bradenton, Fla. The team also will open the Pirate City complex to its players for informal, voluntary workouts. ... The Red Sox signed former Pirates shortstop Pedro Ciriaco to a minor-league deal. ... Left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes signed a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Reyes, 27, went a combined 7-11 with a 5.57 ERA in 29 outings last season for the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.

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