Pirates sign Armas, spur competition

GM says Chacon, Youman, McLeary also in mix for rotation

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Go figure ...

Four of the Pirates' five starting pitchers, all too young for arbitration, will make something close to Major League Baseball's minimum wage of $380,000 this season.

And two of the guys who will duel this spring for the final spot in the rotation?

Each will top $3 million.

The Pirates yesterday finally found the right-handed starter they had sought all offseason, signing free agent Tony Armas to a one-year contract with a salary of $3 million. There also is a mutual option for 2008 that would pay $5 million if exercised, possibly more based on his 2007 performance. If the team or player does not agree to that option, the team must pay a $500,000 buyout.

That would seem to be a high price for someone not guaranteed a starting spot.

Earlier this month, the Pirates retained Shawn Chacon with a one-year deal worth $3.8 million. And their plan, as general manager Dave Littlefield confirmed last night, is to use spring training to determine which of those two -- and, possibly, Shane Youman or Marty McLeary -- will start and which will work in long relief.

The way Littlefield sees it, the price paid is one aimed at achieving depth.

"You just can't have enough starting pitching," he said. "You look at what happened last year with Kip Wells, and that's something you've got to guard against."

Wells was lost in spring training for half the season after surgery to address a blocked artery, leaving Victor Santos to back into the rotation despite a dismal exhibition season.

Littlefield said this competition should be more widespread. In addition to including Youman and McLeary in the mix, he mentioned that none of the four youngsters -- Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny -- should take their spots for granted.

"We're in a position where we need everybody to compete," Littlefield said. "I'd certainly like to think that these four young guys, who are very talented, will take the opportunity."

Chacon's contract is not guaranteed, meaning the Pirates could cut him this spring and pay one-sixth of his salary. But Littlefield has said he has no intention of doing that.

Armas, 28, went 9-12 with a 5.03 ERA in 30 starts for the Washington Nationals last season. Over eight seasons in the majors, he has gone 48-60 with a 4.45 ERA.

"He's a guy who had some success early in his career, then had some injuries," Littlefield said. "What you'd like to find out, if he stays healthy, is if he can get back to that. It's good to see the starts he had."

Armas throws a sinking fastball in the 90-92 mph range, along with a sharp curveball, a slider and a changeup. He entered the majors as a 21-year-old in 1999 with Montreal, had 176 strikeouts two years later, and by 2003, was the Expos' opening-day starter.

But on May 23 of that year, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and did not pitch again until the following June. The shoulder bugged him again in 2005, and he had minor surgery in September of that year. The positive since then is that Armas has had no shoulder trouble. The negative is that he has yet to rediscover peak form. In the two years since the major surgery -- and since the Expos moved to Washington -- he went 16-19 with a 5.01 ERA.

Armas' most consistent trait in that time was a tendency to labor and exit early. Case in point was his final start Sept. 29, in which he limited the New York Mets to two runs on four hits but had to leave after just five innings because his pitch count was 111. That included 41 pitches in the final inning.

The acquisition of Armas -- the Pirates' first free-agent signing to a major-league contract this offseason -- might mark the end of their significant activity, even though they project to have about $8 million in leftover money under their self-imposed payroll limit of roughly $50 million. Littlefield acknowledged he still is involved in "some trade talks" and would not rule out further moves, but he said there was no urgency to spend to the limit before the season.

"By no means do I want it represented that we'd be spending money just to get it to the payroll level," he said.

NOTES -- To clear space for Armas on the 40-man roster, the Pirates designated reliever Franquelis Osoria, a December waiver claim, for assignment. ... The Pirates have agreed to terms with left-handed starter Michael Tejera on a minor-league contract, with an invitation to major-league camp. Tejera, 30, has pitched in 111 major-league games, including three in 2005 with the Texas Rangers, and is 11-13 with a 5.14 ERA. Last season, with Class AAA Fresno in the San Francisco Giants' system, he was 8-5 with a 3.80 ERA. ... Armas' father, Tony Armas Sr., was an All-Star outfielder in the majors in 1976-89. He was developed by the Pirates and played his first four games for them.

Morry Gash, Associated Press
Tony Armas Jr. went 9-12 with a 5.03 ERA in 30 starts for the Nationals last season.
Click photo for larger image.

Relates article

Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

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


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