NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The player many anticipate the Pirates will trade remains one of the more difficult players for them to deal.
The circumstances that point to the Pirates trading closer Joel Hanrahan before the 2013 season do not make it any easier for the team to part with him, and Hanrahan remained a Pirate after the first day of the Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
"Probably last summer was the highest Joel's value was," general manager Neal Huntington said. "As we were in competition, it was awfully tough to trade your closer. It's awfully tough to trade him now."
Hanrahan is eligible for arbitration for the final time this winter, and his salary will increase into the $7 million range. He will be a free agent after the 2013 season. Hanrahan struck out 67 batters in 592/3 innings in 2012, similar to his '11 totals, but walked 36 batters last season compared to only 16 the previous season. His ERA increased from 1.83 to 2.72.
For the Pirates to receive draft pick compensation if Hanrahan leaves as a free agent after '13, they must make a qualifying offer equal to the average of the top 125 salaries in Major League Baseball. That number was about $13 million this year. It will increase next season, and the Pirates probably won't take the chance that he accepts it and spend 15 percent of their payroll on a closer.
That issue might not affect another team, but a team must have a player on the roster all season to receive compensation, so a team acquiring Hanrahan midseason wouldn't get a draft pick even if they made a qualifying offer.
"We're in a situation where, if we entertain trading any of our players, it's got to make sense for us short term, moderate term and long term," Huntington said.
The Pirates would have more clarity in their bullpen if they re-signed free agent Jason Grilli, which Huntington said the team is "absolutely" interested in doing.
Grilli, 36, had a fantastic season as a set-up man, striking out 90 batters in 582/3 innings, an average of 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Bringing him back would provide manager Clint Hurdle with a closer and possibly make trading Hanrahan easier.
"Obviously he's a very positive guy, we like having him around," Huntington said. "He's thrown the ball very well for us in the year and two months that we've had him."
Uncertainty prevails in the rotation as well as the bullpen. Only A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald have spots in the rotation, and Charlie Morton's absence until at least June while he rehabilitates after Tommy John ligament replacement surgery leaves two spots open. The organization will let Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke compete for a spot.
Huntington said the shoulder fatigue that forced McPherson home from winter ball should not be an issue when spring training arrives. McPherson, 25, had a 2.73 ERA in 10 appearances, three starts, this season.
"We've got guys we like," Huntington said of the rotation. "It's a matter of finding upgrades."
Huntington said it was unlikely that top draft pick Gerrit Cole would get a chance to compete for a rotation spot. Cole moved from Class A Bradenton to Class AAA Indianapolis this season but made only one regular-season start with Indianapolis.
"There are some guys that are flying through systems and being successful," Huntington said. "There's a lot of guys in the history of the game that have flown through systems and you still wonder whatever happened to them. Gerrit [is] an important piece of our future and we have to make sure that we coordinate his development and put him in a position to be successful for years to come for the Pirates, not just because we're a little bit uneasy with who our rotation is on opening day."
Huntington implied that there was no urgency for the Pirates to wheel and deal because they had already filled their most glaring hole by signing catcher Russell Martin, though he noted they retained payroll flexibility if they wanted to take on salary.
"The biggest move we were going to make this offseason was going to be the catcher," Huntington said. "In our minds, we've already made our big move in Russ. That doesn't mean there's not other big moves coming, but we made the big one that we feel good about."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.