Middle tier Pirates' likely ceiling in free agency

De La Rosa, team's top target, agrees to terms to stay with Rockies

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Three weeks into Major League Baseball's free-agency season, the Pirates have yet to make a signing, although overtures have been plentiful.

Among starting pitchers, the team had expressed strong interest in Jorge De La Rosa, but he agreed to terms on a three-year contract to stay with the Colorado Rockies late Monday night. The Pirates also have shown strong interest in Scott Olsen, as well as making contacts with Jeff Francis, Brandon Webb and Justin Duchscherer.

Among position players, where the Pirates primarily are seeking help at first base and/or right field, the team is known to have expressed interest only in Lance Berkman, though others surely have been contacted. Perhaps the best fit of the pool, given general manager Neal Huntington's preference for right-handed power, is Derrek Lee. The office of Casey Close, Lee's agent, declined Monday to characterize Lee's suitors.

Although some national reports have cast the Pirates as pursuing top-tier free agents, the reality according to the team and several agents is that the middle tier is a far more likely ceiling.

"We are approaching free agency with a similar process as we have in the past," Huntington said. "Some of what has been suggested and written is accurate, and some of it is inaccurate."

Of the team's outlook for spending on the 2011 roster, Huntington said, "Adding the right player for the right acquisition cost and/or on the right contract will dictate our ability to add to this club in 2011 and beyond."

Huntington was asked if Charlie Morton's encouraging showing down the stretch -- as well as three good starts in Dominican winter ball -- might paint him more solidly in the rotation picture, alongside Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm and James McDonald. That, obviously, would lessen the team's sense of urgency to add from the outside.

"Charlie's late-season showing gives us confidence he should be in the mix to compete for a spot in our rotation," Huntington replied.

De La Rosa, 29, had been the Pirates' clear top target in free agency, in large part because they loved his strikeout rate of 7.97 per nine innings. A lack of strikeouts was among the rotation's many glaring shortcomings this past season, the total of 540 ranking last in the majors.

Earlier Monday, agent Bobby Barad affirmed the Pirates' continuing interest in De La Rosa.

"There are a lot of teams that would like to have Jorge, and there's no reason to think the Pirates aren't one of those," Barad said. "Jorge is going to take the situation that's the best from the baseball standpoint, as well as the money, the term, and what's best for his family."

The Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles were the other confirmed suitors.

The other suitors for Olsen, 26, are not known, but they might not matter, anyway, as it appears the Pirates have zeroed in on him.

Berkman, 34, told the Houston Chronicle for Monday's editions that the Pirates are among the eight teams that have expressed interest in him. He added that no formal offers have been made by any team, though he could get one from the Oakland Athletics this week.

Berkman is a switch-hitting first baseman -- he insists he still could play a corner outfield spot, too -- who spent his first 10 seasons with the Astros before being traded to the New York Yankees last summer. He is a career .296 hitter with a .409 on-base percentage, though those figures dropped to .248 and .368 last year in part because of a nagging knee injury, and he hit just one home run in 106 at-bats with the Yankees.

"I'm definitely getting older, but I'm not old yet," Berkman told the Chronicle. "There's no reason I can't have a great year next year."

The Pirates would prefer to address their first base/right field need with a right-handed power bat. Those already in the mix are Garrett Jones, Ryan Doumit and John Bowker, with Jones and Bowker left-handed and Doumit producing most of his power from the left side. Moreover, the rest of the heart of the order has Neil Walker, who is mostly effectively from the left side, and left-handed Pedro Alvarez.

Lee, 35 is coming off a down year in Atlanta -- .260, 19 home runs -- as well as offseason surgery on his right thumb. Also, Lee recently told Yahoo! Sports that he would prefer to sign with a team that has a good chance of making the playoffs, which almost surely would rule out the Pirates.

Other first basemen available in free agency: Garrett Atkins, Russell Branyan, Adam Dunn, Troy Glaus, Nick Johnson, Lyle Overbay and former Pirates Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady and Ty Wigginton.

The Pirates also could add talent through trades, of course, and that appears to be the desired path should they try to upgrade at shortstop over Ronny Cedeno: A Fox Sports report Monday night said the Tampa Bay Rays were trying to move veteran Jason Bartlett, and the Pirates were named as one of the suitors. The Pirates also could be interested in the Minnesota Twins' J.J. Hardy, another veteran being crowded out by his current team.

NOTES -- Walker, the Pirates' second baseman, was named to the Topps all-rookie team. It was the second consecutive year the Pirates have had a player on the team, along with Andrew McCutchen in 2009. ... Third baseman Andy LaRoche and utilityman Delwyn Young each cleared outright waivers and declared themselves free agents. The Pirates designated both for assignment Nov. 19.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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