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Pirates now targeting corner outfielders

| Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010

The Pirates' search to replace outfielder Lastings Milledge will begin with players who also were cut loose by their respective teams at Thursday's midnight deadline to tender contracts.

"This was about exploring our alternatives," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said early Friday morning, a few minutes after Milledge was non-tendered. "A whole new crop of free agents just became available."

Huntington would like to find a corner outfielder with some pop who hammers left-handed pitching. Two veterans on his radar are Matt Diaz and Jack Cust.

Diaz, 32, was non-tendered by the Atlanta Braves and has one year of arbitration eligibility left. This year, he made $2.55 million and hit .273, but played in just 84 games due to an infected thumb.

In five seasons as a platoon outfielder with the Braves, Diaz hit .305 with an .815 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). From 2007-09, he hit .369 with a .975 OPS against left-handers.

Cust, 31, was non-tendered by the Oakland A's. This year, he made $2.65 million and hit .272 with 13 homers and had a respectable .395 on-base percentage. A lefty hitter, Cust has a career .722 OPS against southpaws.

Milledge, 25, began '10 as the Opening-Day starter in left field. He was shifted to right after Jose Tabata was called up, then was demoted to a platoon role due to his poor run production (34 RBI in 113 games) and defensive struggles.

Huntington tried to re-sign Milledge, who made $452,000 this year. But attempts to work out a one-year deal before the tender deadline yielded very little progress.

"It was a tough negotiation," Huntington said. "We're open to having him return if we think it's the right fit for the team, and he thinks it's the right fit for him. As the negotiations went on, we began to explore alternatives. We want to continue to explore those alternatives."

Infielder Argenis Diaz, whom the Pirates also non-tendered, is unlikely to return. He was squeezed out by the acquisition of Pedro Ciriaco and the next wave of middle infielders in the farm system.

Donnie Veal and Brian Burres also were non-tendered, but Huntington is eager to re-sign both left-handers and optimistic he'll get it done. Veal, a former Rule 5 pickup, is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Burres made 13 starts for the Pirates this past season.

The non-tenders created four openings on the 40-man roster. Those spots could be filled next week during the winter meetings, either by free-agent signings or by players selected in the Rule 5 draft.

The Pirates own the first overall pick in the Rule 5 draft. It's possible they will make the unusual step of taking two players in the major league portion of the draft.

Notes : Shortstop Ronny Cedeno and pitcher Jeff Karstens each signed a one-year contract to avoid salary arbitration. Cedeno's deal includes a club option for 2012 and is worth a guaranteed $2 million. Karstens will make $1.1 million, nearly tripling his salary from this past season. ... The club also tendered offers to right-handers Ross Ohlendorf and Joel Hanrahan, who were both first-time eligible for arbitration. If they do not sign contracts by Jan. 18, the pitchers and the team will exchange salary figures for arbitration. Arbitration hearings will be Feb. 1-21.

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