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High-priced signings not in Bucs' plans

Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008

Although the Pirates plan to increase their payroll next season, topping $50 million for only the fourth time, they will not make a big splash in the free-agent market.

"We have money to spend if there is a good fit out there," general manager Neal Huntington said. "But we're not going to spend it just to make ourselves feel better because we'd be getting a more recognizable name, when that player may not be better than what we have in-house."

Friday is the first day free agents may sign with new teams. The closest any of the top-tier players will come to Pittsburgh will be a fly-over on their way to New York or Boston.

The Pirates had four players -- Doug Mientkiewicz, Jason Michaels, Luis Rivas and Chris Gomez -- file for free agency. None are likely to re-sign, though the Pirates will make a play for Mientkiewicz and Michaels.

"We've got some young players who we've got to find out about," Huntington said. "They've got to get opportunities to play."

Team president Frank Coonelly pegged the Pirates' final 2008 payroll at $52 million. It was the franchise's third-highest mark, behind $57.7 million in 2001 (the year PNC Park opened) and $54.8 in 2003.

Coonelly said the Pirates have set a "working budget" for 2009 but declined to divulge the specific number.

"It is higher than the payroll we ended up with at the end of last season," Coonelly said. "But it was set before some of the serious downturn in the stock market, the tightening of the credit market and the deterioration of the economy."

It's possible the Pirates may funnel the cash in other directions, such as their new baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.

"We're only going to spend it if it helps us get better," Coonelly said. "If there are not investments out there that will make us better, then we'll allocate those resources elsewhere."

Some of the payroll increase will cover sizable salary bumps for arbitration-eligible players -- most notably Nate McLouth, Paul Maholm and Ryan Doumit. They each likely will be offered multiyear contracts.

Four players -- Matt Capps, Jack Wilson, Ian Snell and Freddy Sanchez -- already are under contract for 2009, with combined pay hikes of $6.35 million. The Pirates also paid a $1 million buyout on the final year of Matt Morris' contract, which counts against the 2009 payroll.

Whatever foray the Pirates make into free agency will target a starting pitcher and bench players. They could also use a right-handed bat with some power.

The Pirates might check out right-hander Brad Penny, who became a free agent when the Dodgers paid a $2 million buyout.

Penny made just 17 starts last year due to shoulder pain, but tests showed no structural damage. He might be willing to settle for a one-year deal, hoping he can regain his form and net a bigger contract after next season.

However, pitchers such as Penny and Braden Looper could be out of the Pirates' price range. More likely options are second-tier guys, such as Paul Byrd or Odalis Perez.

Coonelly said the Pirates had "several scouts" take a look at righty Junichi Tazawa, a 22-year-old with a 97-mph fastball. The Braves, Red Sox, Cubs and Mariners are also highly interested.

However, there is little chance the Pirates will sign Tazawa. Because Tazawa still is an amateur in Japan, any MLB club that lures him away could be unwelcome there in the future.

The Pirates' spending plan in the free-agent market would be affected if, as expected, Wilson is traded.

Possible suitors for Wilson include the Orioles, Cardinals, Tigers and Dodgers. The Pirates and Dodgers mulled a deal last summer, but things broke down when L.A. had second thoughts.

The Pirates won't have an easy time moving Wilson. One reason is money: Wilson is due $7.25 million next year and has an $8.4 million option ($600,000 buyout) in 2010.

There are plenty of other options out there. The list of free-agent shortstops includes Rafael Furcal, Cesar Izturis, Felipe Lopez, Edgar Renteria, Orlando Cabrera, Alex Cintron, David Eckstein, Adam Everett, Juan Uribe and Omar Vizquel.

Also, the Padres are listening to trade offers for Khalil Green, who is younger, cheaper (but only by $750,000) and has more power than Wilson.

If Wilson is dealt, the Pirates could turn to a free agent as a safety net in case the homegrown combo of Luiz Cruz and Brian Bixler flops. One inexpensive choice would be veteran utilityman Willie Bloomquist, who appeared in a dozen games at short last season for Seattle.

Bloomquist, 30, hit .279 with nine RBI and stole 14 bases. He missed the final six weeks of the season with a strained right hamstring.




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