Pirates looking to answer rotation, first base questions at winter meetings

They hope to know about Lee before Wednesday

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Forget Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The biggest spenders this holiday season won't really open their checkbooks until this week.

Major League Baseball's 30 teams will begin their winter meetings Monday in Dallas, and like most others, the Pirates have a few items to check off their wishlist.

But having already been aggressive in acquiring talent this offseason -- the team spent millions in signing free agent catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes to multi-year deals -- the Pirates might not be as active as they have in recent years.

"We don't expect a watershed moment coming out of the meetings," general manager Neal Huntington said.

The Pirates still have needs. They start with the pitching staff, which Huntington said the front office would like to "deepen" as they approach the 2012 season. Longtime starter Paul Maholm is exploring free agency after the Pirates declined his 2012 option. And Charlie Morton, who pitched his best season of his short career, is recovering from offseason hip surgery, which could keep him out of the rotation through May. Morton and the Pirates are hopeful he could return by opening day, though Huntington said the Pirates do not want to rush his rehabilitation.

James McDonald struggled in the early months last season after an injury forced him to abbreviate his spring training. Huntington said the front office learned a lesson from that experience.

"Charlie is adamant he is going to be ready opening day," Huntington said. "We hope he's right. If not, we have to build a contingency plan."

That plan is already in motion, Huntington said. The team is exploring the free-agent and trade markets.

"We don't have absolutes," Huntington said. "We have some thoughts of where we'd like to make some headway."

The Pirates get some help from an early season schedule that is heavy on off days. They have four off days in April, and Huntington said it is possible the they could start the season with a four-man rotation, relying on a couple spot starts in April.

Late-season injuries to starting pitchers allowed the team to evaluate other pitchers in its system -- including Brad Lincoln and Jeff Locke -- who could compete for a permanent spot in the rotation or provide some relief until Morton returns.

The team is also looking to upgrade its offense, Huntington said -- a need he aimed to address in signing Barajas and Barmes.

Huntington said the team's aggressive approach early this offseason was a tactical move to get the best return from a weak free-agent market at both positions.

"We had a couple key positions to fill and not a lot of players to fill them," Huntington said.

The front office is also waiting to learn the fate of first baseman Derrek Lee, to whom they've offered arbitration. Lee has until Wednesday to decide whether to enter arbitration with the team, though he could decide sooner.

Should he decline, an earlier decision would allow the Pirates and Lee more time to explore other options.

"We're optimistic about an arbitration settlement or negotiated contract," Huntington said. "But we're also preparing to move on if he chooses to play somewhere else or decides not to play next year."

Lee, 36, has pondered retirement.

If Lee does not re-sign, the team has options at first base, either on the market or internally.

Garrett Jones, who made 29 of his 109 starts last season at first base, could platoon the position with Matt Hague, who had a breakout season with Class AAA Indianapolis. Free-agent acquisitions Jake Fox or Nick Evans are also options.

Jones is eligible for arbitration.

Huntington said the Pirates are exploring the market for first basemen "as we speak."

That market is headlined by two players from within the National League Central Division -- Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder -- who will command enormous contracts. The rest of the market might be somewhat stagnant until one or both of those players sign somewhere.

This will be the team's first winter meetings since a reshuffling of the baseball operations staff in September redistributed some responsibilities.

Greg Smith and Kyle Stark were promoted to assistant general manager, and Smith now oversees scouting at every level of the organization. Those were two of six personnel moves .

Huntington said the run-up to the meetings does not feel much different than past seasons -- despite a 15-win improvement -- and that the goals remain the same.

"We're looking for another significant improvement," he said.

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published December 4, 2011 5:00 AM


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