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Pirates won't make splash in free agency — again

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009

One of the Pirates' priorities this offseason is finding left-handed help in the bullpen.

The team shed two premier lefties, John Grabow and Damaso Marte, over the past 18 months. For a while this past season, the bullpen was populated only by right-handers.

"I do think we need that (left-handed option)," closer Matt Capps said. "There's no reason why a righty can't get a lefty out, but playing the numbers is never a bad thing. So, if we went out and got a lefty, I think that would help us improve."

The free-agent shopping season begins Friday, a day after the filing deadline.

Seventy-nine players filed for free agency the day after the World Series ended. More will join the list after the Dec. 12 deadline to tender contract offers to players who are eligible for salary arbitration.

As usual, the Pirates will not compete for the top-shelf free agents, such as Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Jose Valverde and John Lackey. But with an expected payroll of about $32 million, they do have room to sign a player or two.

"We're sitting with some payroll flexibility that we may or may not apply," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We know we need to get better, but we've also got some young players who deserve an opportunity to show what they can do."

Veteran pitchers Jamey Wright and Mark Hendrickson can expect the Pirates to call. Wright, 34, and Hendrickson, 35, each could command a salary of around $1.5 million.

The Pirates are no longer keen on free agent Will Ohman. They tried to sign the lefty last spring, but talks ended on a sour note. Ohman, 32, also has a history of shoulder injury.

The Pirates probably won't sign anyone until it's closer to spring training, when remaining free agents lower their demands.

"We're going to be aggressive, in terms of getting our interest level out to players," Huntington said. "But I don't think we'll be stepping up to the podium too often in November or December; it's more likely to be January, as guys fall into that value category that we're willing to pay."

One such player might be outfielder Rick Ankiel, 30, who made $2.825 million last season with the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Pirates also are interested in righty reliever Ryota Igarashi, 30.

Over 11 seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Igarashi put up a 3.25 ERA and 630 strikeouts in 570 innings pitched. In 2004, his fastball was clocked at 98.75 mph — the fastest ever by a Japanese pitcher in the Central League.

Age and injury — he missed the 2007 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery — have taken some of the zip off Igarashi's fastball, which still touches the mid-90s. He also throws a hard splitter, curveball and slider.

When it came to signing Asian players, the Pirates for years were behind the curve. That is starting to change under Huntington.

In 2007, Masumi Kuwata became the first Japanese to play for the Pirates. Two weeks ago, they traded for infielder Akinori Iwamura.

"He's certainly a name on our board," Huntington said. "Where the financial elements of the conversation go is obviously going to be an important part of the process.

"When we traded for Iwamura, the hope was that it would open the Japanese market to us a little bit more than it was in the past. It may mean this year, it may mean next year or two years from now."

There is talk in the industry that the lethargic economy may lead to more arbitration-eligible players than usual being non-tendered. In addition to boosting the free-agent pool, that could spark more trades before the tender deadline.

"Players who may be non-tender candidates are in play right now," Huntington said. "Young players have more value and they continue to build value."

The Florida Marlins dealt Jeremy Hermida — whose name came up two seasons ago when the Pirates were shopping Jason Bay — to Boston for a pair of pitching prospects. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, whom the Pirates coveted, went from Milwaukee to Minnesota in exchange for outfielder Carlos Gomez.

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