Pirates will pursue familiar faces in free agency

Grabow likely target this winter, as is St. Louis outfielder Rick Ankiel

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The Pirates plan to be more aggressive in free agency than last year, general manager Neal Huntington said yesterday, and that could include a pursuit of recently traded players.

"We will look into the free-agent market, and we have some money to apply to the right situation," Huntington said yesterday. "We go in not feeling that we have a desperate hole to fill but that, if we can find someone who makes us better in the short and hopefully the long term, we can do that."

He did not identify any targets -- that would constitute tampering -- but he did acknowledge that some familiar faces will be among them. Among the players traded in the past year who can be free agents are shortstop Jack Wilson, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, first baseman Adam LaRoche and reliever John Grabow.

"We are open to all avenues and, just because a player left here, we haven't closed the door on anyone," Huntington said. "Without getting into specifics or tampering, we're open in all areas to bringing some players back if there's the right financial fit and they think it's the right fit for them."

Of the above players, the most likely to be vigorously pursued is Grabow, as the Pirates plan to look for a left-handed reliever in exactly his mold. But the Chicago Cubs, Grabow's current employer, are expected to make a bid to keep him, and no player can declare free agency until 15 days after the conclusion of the World Series.

Why not simply have kept Grabow?

"Because we liked the return we got," Huntington replied.

Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny went to Chicago in a four-pitcher trade that brought Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio.

Wilson has an $8.5 million club option with Seattle, and the Mariners said upon acquiring him that they would like to keep him. But he has batted .224 in 31 games and missed nearly a month of playing time to various injuries.

Sanchez will not qualify for that much-discussed $8 million vesting option, as injuries in San Francisco will leave him well short of the 600 plate appearances needed to trigger it. The Giants still could pay that amount through a club option or discuss another extension. But Sanchez, too, has been limited to 23 games by injury -- he is batting .278 -- and might not be seen by that team as the best long-term fit.

All three of the above would welcome a return to Pittsburgh.

LaRoche, a first baseman, would not be a fit because the Pirates have existing possibilities there.

In addition to left-handed relief, their focus will be on a corner outfielder, second base, a veteran bench player and, as always, additional pitching. That does not mean, Huntington stressed, that players such as shortstop Ronny Cedeno are guaranteed a job, or that Delwyn Young will not be the second baseman. Only that all options will be explored.

"We like what we've seen of Ronny, and we'd be comfortable going into the season with him," Huntington said. "Up until this last stretch, Delwyn was doing very well offensively and getting better in the field. He might still be that guy."

The corner outfielder might offer the Pirates their best chance at a significant signing, and one player on their radar is St. Louis' Rick Ankiel.

Ankiel, 30, is having a down year -- .233, 11 home runs, 37 RBIs -- but that is viewed by some as an aberration, and his superb athleticism is a potentially fine fit for PNC Park's spacious left field. The latter was witnessed first-hand in the Cardinals' series here earlier this month, when he made two exceptional running catches into the North Side Notch.

Ankiel, currently making $2,825,000, is represented by super-agent Scott Boras.

Many in the industry are predicting that the coming free-agent market will be depressed by sagging revenues across Major League Baseball, and Huntington is among them.

"We think it's going to be an interesting market," he said. "The impact of the economy is real, and we'll look to see if there are opportunities where we can capitalize. We're going to be in on more players than we were last year. Does that mean we'll end up with an everyday player or a starter for our rotation? Time will tell, but we're certainly going to explore all avenues."

The Pirates' payroll has not been set for 2010. If the current team took the field as is for opening day, it would cost roughly $24 million, less than half the opening-day figure this year, but Huntington made clear it will have more flexibility than that.

Forgetting free agency, payroll will have to account for built-in raises for starter Paul Maholm and catcher Ryan Doumit, as well as arbitration raises for starter Zach Duke, closer Matt Capps and Cedeno.

Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog . Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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