CINCINNATI -- Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, has acknowledged feeling burned by the process in which their pursuit last summer of Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano, Latin America's top amateur prospect, ended up with Sano signing with Minnesota for $3.15 million.
But Huntington was adamant in an interview Thursday that the team will be no less aggressive in its pursuit in the coming signing period for international 16-year-olds, which begins July 2. That includes, he confirmed, spending above the team's international budget -- believed to be $3 million -- if Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo finds an expensive player he covets.
"Rene does an incredible job of finding talent, regardless of bonus figure," Huntington said. "But if there are guys that he likes, that we like as an organization, that will cost us some money ... then, yes, we'll absolutely have the ability to go after them."
There have been 31 seven-figure international bonuses given out, and the Pirates never have spent more than the $400,000 Gayo paid to Venezuelan outfielder Exicardo Cayones two years ago. But Huntington offered evidence that big bonuses are far from a sure thing in that region, including internally: Outfielder Starling Marte, the Pirates' top international prospect, was signed three years ago by Gayo for $85,000.
"If you look at the top 20 international prospects in each of the leagues right now, more than 50 percent signed for less than $100,000," Huntington said. "So, it has not become a market where you have to spend seven figures to be successful."
He quickly added, "That said, it doesn't mean we're not going to do that. We were obviously in the market for Sano. The others at that level last year, we didn't like. There are guys getting tremendous hype this year that we don't like at those levels."
The Pirates are not discussing at all their intentions for the coming month, but they are known to have an interest in at least two such talents: Dominican shortstop Elvis Sanchez, as well as a Mexican pitcher -- the source would not identify the pitcher -- and a wider swath of the high-priced players than in the past.
The Pirates agreed to a signing bonus of $185,000 for a 17-year-old Dominican pitcher, 6-foot-4 right-hander Jonathan Herrand, the Dominican site Hoy reported Thursday, but no contract has been signed. The report quotes Herrand's coach as saying his fastball reaches 95 mph.
Huntington stressed that, if the Pirates do commit big money in this area, it will be for baseball reasons.
"What we're not going to do is throw money out there just to make a splash," he said. "We're going to sign players, and we'll extend if we have to. But to randomly throw money out there to make people happy, it's a bad idea and a bad way to run a business."
The Pirates have signed 17 international players this year, with a high bonus of $280,000 for Dominican outfielder Willy Garcia, and agreements have been reached with five others for a total of 22.
The Washington Nationals have not announced an exact date for the debut of Stephen Strasburg, baseball's best pitching prospect in the past decade, but expectations are high in D.C. that it will come when the Pirates visit June 8-10.
Manager John Russell did not sound terribly moved by that.
"There's going to be a lot of media, a lot of attention, but we get that when we face Tim Lincecum or Chris Carpenter," Russell said. "You still have to prepare for the game. He's obviously pretty good. When you face someone like a Roy Halladay or Carpenter -- and I'm not putting him in that category -- well, you have to see him first. We've never seen him."
• Aki Iwamura was out of the lineup Thursday, replaced by Neil Walker at second base. Russell said Iwamura was being rested -- "We're playing 20 games in a row, and we want to keep guys fresh," he said -- but said he liked what he saw of Walker in his first two starts, 3 for 8 at the plate and solid at third. Second has been the least of Walker's new positions, but the coaching staff saw him take grounders and felt he could handle it.
• Third baseman Andy LaRoche returned after missing five games to back stiffness. LaRoche did extensive stretching to get the back "feeling really good," he said, and he and the team will continue taking extra steps the rest of the season.
• Shortstop Ronny Cedeno was moved from No. 8 to leadoff and responded with two doubles and a walk to extend and 18-game steak of reaching base safely. Cedeno credited hitting coach Don Long for steadying his approach: "I was moving my hands, my feet, and I was going after some bad pitches. Now, I feel like I can go right to the ball every time." • Cedeno was the seventh different leadoff man Russell has used this season. He used eight all of last season.