Chacon, Cota might be fallback options

Pirates can cut one or both in spring training next year

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On the surface, it would seem the Pirates greatly diminished their chance to acquire any prominent player this offseason the moment they tendered arbitration contracts to Shawn Chacon and Humberto Cota late Tuesday night. Those commitments, which some might consider a surprise, could wipe out $5 million of the projected $17 million available to spend on free agents or trade acquisitions.

But there could be more to the matter.

General manager Dave Littlefield stressed yesterday that the contracts for Chacon and Cota will be non-guaranteed, as is the Pirates' policy with all arbitration-eligible players. A player with such a contract is owed one-sixth of his salary if cut by mid-March or a quarter of his pay if cut by the end of that month.

Put another way, Chacon and Cota might be nothing more than interim fallback options.

"These are all non-guaranteed contracts," Littlefield said. "That's part of the mix."

Littlefield made clear, too, that those two players might well be part of the Pirates' plans.

"Their value is reasonable, relative to what's available and what you've got to pay through free agency or trades," he said. "Obviously, we're always looking at internal options first. We think, right now, this makes the most sense."

There was much internal debate about Chacon and Cota.

Chacon, 28, was coming off a season in which he went 7-6 with a 5.82 ERA while making $3.6 million. The arbitration process requires that he receives no less than 80 percent of that amount next year, but he surely will make the same or more.

The Pirates' initial sentiment was to cut Chacon loose, but that feeling flipped based on their reaction to this offseason's surge in costs for starters.

"The trade situation hasn't materialized to find that veteran kind of starter. And free agency hasn't, either, at this point," Littlefield said. "It's obvious that it's getting very expensive."

Might that mean he has given up on acquiring that pitcher?

"We'll keep looking."

Littlefield pointed to Chacon's 7-3 record in 12 starts with the New York Yankees two years ago, as well as a good finish with the Pirates last season, as evidence of his potential.

"Once he got some innings under his belt, he showed some good things," Littlefield said.

He added that organizational depth for starters is uncertain, with John Van Benschoten, Sean Burnett and Bryan Bullington still climbing back from arm surgeries.

Cota, 27, batted .190 last season and was the fourth-string catcher by September, behind Ronny Paulino, Ryan Doumit and Carlos Maldonado.

The Pirates' decision to keep him, Littlefield said, had much to do with Doumit's history of injury. Doumit appeared in only 61 games last season because of a torn hamstring, extending a trend that has followed him through the system.

"We're intrigued by Doumit's bat, and his catching continues to improve," Littlefield said. "But you can't improve on the disabled list."

It is possible, too, that Cota was retained because catching is at a premium in baseball. If the Pirates do not have a use for him, another team might.

Cota made $342,000 last season and should double that, at the least, in his first arbitration-eligible year.

On another front, the Pirates' signing of Cuban pitcher Yoslan Herrera is being delayed, apparently because of the team's concerns about the physical he took last week.

Herrera's agent, Jaime Torres, said yesterday that terms of the three-year contract, agreed upon by the Pirates and his client nearly two months ago, are not an issue. Rather, he said, "We're just waiting for them to get back to us on the physical."

Littlefield did not specify the nature of the delay, but said, "We are still working on getting everything finalized, but it's not finalized yet."

NOTES -- The Pirates have signed Maldonado to a minor-league contract with their Class AAA affiliate in Indianapolis. Maldonado, 27, was Indianapolis' most valuable player with a .283 average, then went 2 for 19 as a September recall for the Pirates. ... The Pirates have rejected the Philadelphia Phillies' request for one of two relievers, Mike Gonzalez or Salomon Torres, in exchange for starter Jon Lieber. Lieber has one year left on his contract. ... Cleveland inquired about Gonzalez, too, but the Indians flatly denied the Pirates' bid for switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez, whom the Pirates would have converted to first base. ... Midnight tonight is the deadline to sign Japanese players, and the Boston Red Sox remained favored over the Pirates to sign starter Masumi Kuwata, 38.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Starting pitcher Shawn Chacon might be an interim fallback option.
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