The Pirates enter the opening of free-agent season today as patient, prudent investors in pursuit of a bat and bullpen arms.
In other words, don't expect them to jump into the free-agent pool in November. Toes in, testing, they will wait and wade in that pool for a spell.
"We've had a lot of initial dialogue," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said about the 150-some players who today are free to negotiate with all major league teams, though more than 350 major and minor leaguers remain available in all. "We're expressing interest in a lot of places. I wouldn't expect us to be market setters. I don't know if we're going to be setting the market on any of the free agents out there. We're looking to upgrade, we're looking to get better. It could come later in the market.
"At the same time, we have a lot of young players who have earned opportunities ... "
Huntington mentioned two prospects already on the 40-man roster -- future right fielder Jose Tabata and third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- before management tinkers with it sometime before tonight's deadline. The Pirates are likely add Class AAA pitcher Brad Lincoln, Class AA outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and possibly Class A pitcher Bryan Morris, if not more prospects to protect.
Tabata and Alvarez, he said, are a pair of 2008 acquisitions and fast-rising prospects who give Pirates management a comfort level going into this free-agent period.
"With Garrett Jones and Jeff Clement [at first base] and [left fielder] Lastings Milledge and [third baseman] Andy LaRoche and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, we feel we have the four corners covered nicely," Huntington said. "We're excited about what Jose's doing in the Arizona Fall League. Pedro's working very hard in his strength and conditioning program. We expect both to come into spring training ready to roll.
"We're continuing to look to upgrade but don't feel a desperate need to fill any hole. We feel like we're reasonably covered. If there's a good value and fit there, we do it."
The Pirates, with a 2010 payroll hovering around $32 million, have money to toss at free agents -- though they decline to specify, otherwise agents might hold them up for high prices. Yet Andrew McCutchen in center field, newly acquired Akinori Iwamura at second base (for one season, at least) and Ryan Doumit in front of two major-league-ready youngsters at catcher also leave management feeling solidified up the middle, for now.
So that basically leaves shortstop and a swing player, perhaps one suited for both outfield and somewhere in the infield, as positions of most interest to the Pirates. St. Louis outfielder Rick Ankiel, a player who intrigues them, fits the latter billing.
"We'd love to add some offense [in] some way, shape or form," Huntington said. "It may not come in the form of a monstrous home-run hitter. It might be a good hitter who can help us.
"And we're always looking for bullpen depth. There are some openings there. We're always looking for competition. We're not in the $2-, $3- and $4-million reliever market. Teams that have applied a lot of money in the bullpen haven't been successful."
Bang for their bucks is the Pirates' mantra, particularly given the economy. The acquisition of Iwamura from Tampa Bay, following by two years the Pirates debut of reliever Masumi Kuwata, could help to better position the club to negotiate with Japanese free-agent pitcher Ryota Igarashi, among others. However, management shies away from relievers with high price tags. That likely includes the kind of left-hander they could use, such as ex-Pirates setup pitcher John Grabow, who is reportedly close to re-signing with the Chicago Cubs, to whom Huntington traded him last July.
"No doors are closed," he said. "We got some money to spend. That doesn't mean we're just going to spend it. To throw money out there because we have it, that's not an efficient way to run a business.
"We'll see how the market plays out. We'll let people know of our opportunity and interest. If there's a mutual interest right away, outstanding. If we get the right value and the right fit, we move. If not, we continue to explore further options."
Even after today's expected 40-man roster moves, additions and subtractions to the lineup will continue beyond this weekend, this free-agent season, this spring training.
"Who goes north on April 4 may be different on May 15 and different on Aug. 15," said Huntington.