Pirates looking beyond LaRoche

Glacial trade talks force expansion of search for power bat

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The Pirates finally are turning seriously toward options other than Atlanta's Adam LaRoche for their coveted left-handed power bat, two sources said yesterday.

That does not mean LaRoche is out of their sights, the sources said. Rather, it is a sign that neither the Pirates nor Braves are budging much from their positions to make a trade and that, with spring training a month away, time is ticking for Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield to add what is seen as an essential piece.

"Pittsburgh still wants to make that trade," one of the sources said. "But you wonder how long they can afford to wait."

For most of this offseason, Littlefield has focused on LaRoche, the Braves' 27-year-old first baseman who hit 32 home runs last season. He has done so to the point of telling agents who represent hitters through free agency that the Pirates will make no move until they know for certain if they can land LaRoche.

From accounts on both sides, the Pirates and Atlanta never have gotten as close to a deal as they did Dec. 6, when Braves general manager John Schuerholz backed away from a proposal to swap LaRoche for closer Mike Gonzalez.

Since then, the sides have exchanged other proposals, with Atlanta's wish being Gonzalez plus another player, possibly center fielder Chris Duffy. The Pirates' position on that, as one team official put it, was that "we'd be creating two holes to fill one." The Braves also might entertain taking a starter for LaRoche, but the Pirates are highly reluctant to part with any of their top four: Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny.

As someone inside the industry but outside either organization put it, "Doesn't look like there's a match."

Another sign: Atlanta management this week has been telling all concerned that it is planning to go to spring training with its current roster, LaRoche included.

So, where does that leave the Pirates?

Free agency has dried up for their type of hitter.

A month ago, the Pirates contacted outfielder Trot Nixon, 32, who has not topped 13 home runs since hitting 28 for the Boston Red Sox in 2003. But Littlefield still has not made a contract offer, and Nixon has been negotiating this week with two other teams.

Trade possibilities are greater in volume, though not as great as early in the offseason.

The Pirates and Arizona are believed to have discussed a deal that would send out Gonzalez for third baseman Chad Tracy, but the Diamondbacks want more. Tracy, 26, has hit 47 home runs the past two seasons and could move to first base or the outfield.

The New York Yankees last month offered outfielder Melky Cabrera, 22, for Gonzalez, but that talk has faded to zero in the past three weeks.

Washington still has outfielder Ryan Church on the block, but some on the Pirates' side believe he would not be an upgrade over their current lot. Church, 28, hit 19 home runs in 464 at-bats over the past two seasons for the Nationals.

The Los Angeles Angels have shopped first baseman Casey Kotchman, 23, but they were a poor match in seeking a power hitter or starting pitching.

Milwaukee remains eager to move Geoff Jenkins to clear its outfield glut, to the point where the Brewers might pick up some of his $7 million salary next season. The Brewers probably would ask for little in a trade return, too. Jenkins, 32, is coming off a rare down year with a .277 average and 17 home runs.

NOTES -- The Pirates signed the first of their eight arbitration-eligible players by agreeing to a one-year $537,000 contract with catcher Humberto Cota. He can earn a maximum of $80,000 in performance bonuses based on plate appearances. ... The Pirates signed first baseman John Fitzpatrick, a non-drafted free agent, to a minor-league contract. As a senior at Manhattan College last season, Fitzpatrick, 22, batted .325 with a school-record 18 home runs and 66 RBIs in 200 at-bats. A 6-foot-4, right-handed batter, he was the school's all-time leader in hits (216), home runs (35) and RBIs (177) and was a second-team NCAA All-American as a senior. His career on-base percentage was .393, as he walked 86 times against 95 strikeouts. "This is a dream come true," Fitzpatrick said of his first professional contract. "All the hard work, morning practices and hours spent in my back yard all seem worth it right now." ... The Pirates re-signed minor-league starter Jason Roach, 30, who went 8-9 with a 3.61 ERA in 26 starts last season for Class AAA Indianapolis and Class AA Altoona.

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Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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