Inflated market could benefit Pirates

Team feels wildness of free agency will enhance value of trade pieces

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As Major League Baseball's outrageous offseason of spending hits fresh peaks almost daily, the Pirates -- silent as can be -- appear to be no more than an afterthought.

And it just might stay that way.

Or not.

Ask general manager Dave Littlefield, and he still recites a wish list for a left-handed power hitter to play first base or right field, a right-handed starting pitcher, a right-handed reliever, a long reliever and a backup middle infielder.

He does allow that the power hitter, the most valuable of those commodities, probably will have to come through trade. But he firmly rejects the notion that the Pirates cannot be players in this manic environment for player acquisition.

To the contrary, Littlefield points out -- and it is a difficult view to dispute -- that the players he can trade are made more valuable with each signing that sends the free-agent market deeper into orbit.

"Sure, it's going to help us," Littlefield said. "You've got to go someplace to get players. If the free-agent market gets expensive, you would think, in general, that the trade market would increase, as well, as far as value."

Asked if he might be put off by the free-agent market, he replied, "No. It's just something you have to be aware of, to put your strategies together to acquire what you need relative to your resources."

So, what is going on with the Pirates' offseason?

For the most part, it seems, not a whole lot yet.

One agent who represents a player in the Pirates' power-hitting mold was asked if he had heard from the team and answered, "Pittsburgh? Not this year."

Another agent who spoke to three general managers in the past week said the Pirates are not coming up in trade talks, either.

That could change, though, particularly in regard to the power hitter, as the Pirates are believed to be narrowing their focus to a handful of possible trade targets.

One slugger they have discussed internally is the Cincinnati Reds' Adam Dunn, who owns one of the game's most potent bats when he makes contact. Despite a .234 average and 194 strikeouts, Dunn, 26, had 40 home runs -- his third season in a row of 40-plus -- along with 92 RBIs.

But it appears unlikely that the Pirates will go this route, partly because Dunn would make $10.5 million next season, partly because they sound reluctant to add strikeouts to a team that ranked fourth in the National League in that category last season.

Littlefield was asked how heavily strikeouts will be weighed in his choice and replied: "I'd say we have a fair amount of strikeouts in our lineup, and I'd like to have someone with less strikeouts who gets on base, ideally. But you have to deal with what's available."

Another player the Pirates are considering is the Colorado Rockies' Brad Hawpe, 26, who can play right field or first base. He is coming off his first full season, one in which he batted .293 with 22 home runs and 84 RBIs. He also showed a good eye in drawing 73 walks, helping boost his on-base percentage to .383.

Whatever the case, the power hitter is "more likely" to come through trade, Littlefield said, largely because there are so few in free agency who fit the bill. Aubrey Huff, late of the Houston Astros, might be the only one, and the Pirates are not pursuing him.

The starter could come through free agency, Littlefield said, though the field of affordable talent there is slim, too. Ordinary pitchers such as Gil Meche and Vicente Padilla should command annual salaries of more than $8 million. And those in the price tier below them might not be not much better than what the Pirates could have by retaining Shawn Chacon.

One familiar name in the latter tier is Kip Wells, but he will not return to Pittsburgh, agent Randy Hendricks said.

The utility infielder is likely to come from the outside, Littlefield said. But he said the right-handed reliever and long man could emerge from a pack that includes Josh Sharpless, Jonah Bayliss, Marty McLeary, Shane Youman and Chacon.

What do the Pirates have to give?

For one, they have more money than initially thought.

When owner Kevin McClatchy revealed in September that payroll would remain "flat," it was generally accepted that it would stay at about $46 million, the final spending figure for 2006. But Littlefield said this week it will be closer to $50 million, referring to it as "fifty-ish" and an increase over last year.

The breakdown so far: The team has $11.8 million committed to three signed players. An additional $6 million will be committed if the team keeps Chacon through arbitration and exercises a $3 million option on reliever Damaso Marte, each of which appears more likely to happen than not. Five other arbitration-eligible players should earn about $15 million combined. The rest will make close to the minimum $380,000.

That scenario projects payroll to roughly $36 million and leaves about $14 million to spend.

The other asset the Pirates have -- plenty of pitching -- could be more valuable than cash in this market. Any of their four young starters -- Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm -- would fetch a fine return in a trade. And the same would be true of late-inning relievers Mike Gonzalez and Salomon Torres, especially given the wild spending on bullpen help this offseason.

It does not sound as if it will be easy to pry a starter from Littlefield, though.

"It's likely that we won't talk trade for any of those four starters," he said. "I just think it's too valuable a commodity, and I have a lot of faith in these guys becoming even better and helping us go where we want to go. You never say never, but I'd say trading any of them is unrealistic."

Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press
Forty-plus home runs make Adam Dunn attractive, but his $10.5 million salary dulls the shine.
Click photo for larger image.

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