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Luring free agent talent no easy task for Pirates

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 10:38 p.m.
Bob Nutting Chairman of the Board and principal owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates speaks to the media on the North Side at PNC Park Nov. 6, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Baseball's offseason market for swapping and signing players kicks into high gear Monday, when the four-day winter meetings begin in Nashville, Tenn.

The Pirates entered the offseason seeking an everyday catcher, a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher and help for the bullpen and bench. The most difficult target was catcher — which is why the team aggressively pursued free agent Russell Martin, whom they signed Friday to a two-year, $17 million deal.

But any other significant additions are more likely to come via trades than free agent signings.

“The Pirates need to add by trades more than free agents, anyway,” said ESPN.com and MLB Network Radio analyst Jim Bowden. “The lack of revenues/resources is always an issue, ... (but) they are a catcher, a shortstop and starting pitching away from being serious contenders.”

A limited budget makes it tough for the Pirates to attract top free agents. Several industry insiders — front office executives, agents and scouts — say there is another reason some players tune out the Pirates. The team's image, already tarnished by two decades of losing and low payrolls, took another hit with the recent revelation of year-round, military-style training methods.

“No one is questioning the Pirates' desire to win, but there are plenty of questions about ... the direction they're taking to try to get there,” one former National League executive said.

The training routines, which included sunrise workouts on the beach and on obstacle courses, were used only with minor leaguers. But it has created a sense at the major league level of the industry that the Pirates are turning desperate.

“The Pirates can try to downplay it, but there definitely is a perception and a reality to the situation,' ” the former executive said.

In early November, owner Bob Nutting indicated the Pirates will end the controversial training methods and refocus on baseball-centered workouts.

“The national take (on those workouts) was more subdued than the local reaction among Pirates fans,” Bowden said. “Certainly the Navy SEALs training methods caused somewhat of a negative view. However, that can be eradicated over time.”

Still, even before the training techniques became an issue, the Pirates struggled to lure top-notch players. They recently were rejected by free agents Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Jorge de la Rosa. In 2011, Carlos Beltran blocked a trade to Pittsburgh.

Too often, free agents who sign with the Pirates are in the twilight of their careers — witness Rod Barajas, Erik Bedard, Lyle Overbay, Scott Olsen, Ryan Church, Jaret Wright, Byung-Hyun Kim and Joe Beimel. The list of free agents who exceeded expectations in Pittsburgh isn't much longer than Garrett Jones, Javier Lopez, Octavio Dotel, Jason Grilli and perhaps Doug Mientkiewicz.

The string of free agent flops since GM Neal Huntington took over in September 2007 has caught Nutting's attention.

“The free agent market is not a great place for us to source talent,” Nutting said. “Will we get every decision right? Of course not. But it's clear we need to improve our ability to make better decisions. We cannot afford, from a performance or financial (standpoint), to screw these up.”

Nutting said the Pirates' payroll will go up in 2013, although he did not provide specifics. Payroll for the 40-man roster at the end of the 2012 season was $61.4 million, which again ranked among the 10 lowest in the majors.

Although the Pirates will spend more cash, they will not splurge in the free agent market.

“I believe it's never, particularly in a market like Pittsburgh, simply going to be about how many dollars do we throw against the wall,” Nutting said. “It's about how effectively do we deploy the dollars we do have. We've had a lot of discussion about that because that's where the free agent misses really hurt. To be able to deploy those dollars effectively is what we need to focus on and will improve on.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com .

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