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MLB free agents thinning out

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Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007

There is not much left for the Pirates to choose from on the free-agent market.

With only 44 shopping days before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the Pirates haven't filled their two biggest needs. Although the pickings are slim for a lefty power hitter, a few decent right-handed starting pitchers are available.

"The signings of Barry Zito and Jeff Suppan sort of cleared the field for teams that need starting pitching," Jim Masteralexis, the agent for free-agent pitcher Tomo Ohka, said Tuesday.

Masteralexis spoke a few days ago with Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, and the Pirates have examined Ohka's medical records.

Of the seven teams with serious interest in Ohka, four have made offers. Masteralexis declined to say whether the Pirates have offered a deal.

Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, Arizona, Seattle and Washington also are in the hunt.

Ohka, 30, made $4.53 million last year, when he went 4-5 with a 4.83 ERA in 18 starts for the Milwaukee Brewers. He sat out part of last season with a strained rotator cuff, but he appears to be healthy and will start spring training on time.

Ohka is believed to be asking for a three-year deal in the range of $18 million to $21 million.

"This is Tomo's first time as a free agent, so we want a multiyear deal," Masteralexis said. "But I'm not in a rush to get something done."

If the Pirates come up short in the bidding for Ohka, other possibilities include Jerome Williams and Tony Armas Jr. A hefty price tag put Joel Pineiro out of the picture.

The Pirates have agreed to a minor-league deal with veteran infielder Jose Hernandez, but he is more of a spare part than the everyday run-producer the team seeks.

Hernandez, 36, batted .267 with a pair of home runs in 63 games for the Pirates last year before being dealt to Philadelphia for cash. He will make $900,000 if he plays in the majors this season.

Scrap heap
The Pirates want a right-handed starting pitcher and a first baseman/right fielder who bats left-handed. There are only a few such players available in the free-agent market. Here is a look at those players' 2006 statistics:
Trot Nixon
Todd Hollandsworth
Darin Erstad
Michael Tucker
Tony Armas Jr.
Jeff Weaver
Tomo Ohka
Joel Pineiro
Jerome Williams
Steve Trachsel

Hernandez, who bats right-handed, brings versatility to the roster -- he can play first, second, third, shortstop and outfield -- but little pop.

What was a weak group of free agents at the outset has been thinned considerably over the past few weeks.

Infielder Aubrey Huff, who last week landed a three-year, $20 million deal from the Baltimore Orioles, was the Pirates' last, best free-agent option for a lefty bat.

The Pirates might take another look at Trot Nixon after showing interest during the winter meetings. But Nixon, 32, is neither young nor a slugger; his OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) has dipped in each of the past three seasons, reaching a career-low .767 last year.

There are other players available, but most are either too old (Michael Tucker, Ryan Klesko) or injury-prone (Darin Erstad) to be of much use.

As Littlefield has said all along, the Pirates' best route for adding offense is a trade. A proposed deal with Atlanta for first baseman Adam LaRoche flickered during the winter meetings and again around Christmas, but never transpired.

It could be that the Braves have no interest in dealing LaRoche at this time. They might simply be gauging the level of interest -- which has proven to be substantial -- to see how much they can get for him at the trading deadline or next offseason.

The Los Angeles Angels recently signed Shea Hillenbrand, making young first baseman Casey Kotchman a potential target for the Pirates. But the Angels reportedly are considering shipping Kotchman to Colorado in a package for first baseman Todd Helton.

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