The Pirates' hot-and-cold pursuit of free-agent starter Jeff Suppan apparently is heating up again.
They are one of three teams making the most serious bid for his services, according to agent Scott Leventhal, along with the Milwaukee Brewers and another that was undisclosed. The third team likely is the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners or Texas Rangers, all of whom are vying for the open market's top pitching prize -- Barry Zito -- and might turn to Suppan as a fallback.
One team has offered Suppan a contract, Leventhal said -- believed to be for four years -- though he would not specify which. Milwaukee has denied making an offer, so that would leave the Pirates or the mystery party.
Dave Littlefield, the Pirates' general manager, has been in touch with Leventhal for more than a month, and he made a two-year proposal to Suppan -- possibly an informal one -- at Major League Baseball's winter meetings two weeks ago. That never would get a deal done, given the explosive nature of pitchers' values in free agency this winter, and each side seemed to back off from there.
Yesterday, though, Leventhal made clear that the sides remain engaged.
"The Pirates are still very interested in Suppan," he said. "And the feelings are mutual."
Suppan, who turns 32 next month, went 12-7 with a 4.12 ERA for St. Louis last season, then was among the Cardinals' top playoff performers on the way to a World Series title.
The Pirates are projected to have roughly $13 million in leftover money for their self-imposed payroll limit of $50 million-plus for 2007, and they have yet to make a significant player acquisition this offseason.
Littlefield has stated in recent days that he was leaning toward a trade to add his desired right-handed starter, mostly because of spiraling costs, but he has not ruled out free agency.
"It's been our feeling from the beginning that it's more likely to be a trade because we would like, ideally, to have someone who fits into our age group. And trades, generally, are where you're going to find those players. As things change in the marketplace, you've got to be able to adjust to what happens. But we're still looking at both," Littlefield said.
NOTES -- The Pirates made official the signing of Japanese starter Masumi Kuwata to a minor-league contract with an invitation to the major-league portion of spring training. Kuwata, 38, is a 21-year veteran of the Japanese Central League and owns a 173-141 career record. ... Turns out that newly signed starter Yoslan Herrera would not be the Pirates' first player of Cuban descent. There are eight on record, all but two having entered the United States before Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959. The two post-Castro entries are pitcher Luis Tiant (1981) and first baseman Orestes Destrade (1988).
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com .