Winter Meetings: Delay might pay for Pirates

Ample reason to keep Bay, Morris, Wilson into 2008

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It seems a long shot that the Pirates will trade Jason Bay at Major League Baseball's four-day Winter Meetings, which begin today at the majestic Opryland Hotel.

It seems against the odds, too, that they will find someone to take Matt Morris' $9.5 million salary.

Or that they will hear an offer good enough to pry Jack Wilson, their only option at shortstop in 2008.

Sounds like a dud even before it begins, right?

Well, consider this ...

Bay would be getting dealt at his lowest possible value, coming off a .247 season in which his health again was an issue. The return might be negligible, and the Pirates surely would get roasted by their fan base for a salary dump.

Morris was 7-5 with a 3.55 ERA before the All-Star break last season for the San Francisco Giants, numbers that make a decent fit for his cost. If he could replicate that first half in 2008 -- and the pedigree surely is there -- the Pirates would get three good months of pitching and, if they still are interested in moving his salary, would have no trouble finding takers.

The Pirates' previous management nearly dealt Wilson to Detroit this past summer, and it was only after the deal with the Tigers fell through that they had a sharp reminder of what they had. Wilson batted .401 in the season's final two months and capped another fine defensive year. Dealing him now would be even more perilous, as there are no internal options to replace him immediately. Brian Bixler is promising, but his defense needs more work in Class AAA, and the Pirates plan to start him there again.

So, what is left?

The Pirates' aim, as outlined by general manager Neal Huntington, is to bolster the depth of the bullpen and bench. But he has no goal of achieving that during the Winter Meetings, an event he calls "over-hyped," and he sounds as if he might prefer to wait deeper into the offseason.

"We're not going to be a player for the high-priced free agents, as we've said," Huntington said. "But we'll be listening and talking about trades."

Even there, though, a delay is likely on most fronts. The way baseball's offseason works, the big dominoes have to fall before teams can clearly define their needs. That means the top-tier players being shopped in trades, such as the Florida Marlins' Miguel Cabrera or the Minnesota Twins' Johan Santana, need to go first. Same with the free agents.

Once those settle, the Pirates could find suitors in surprising places.

For one, they could trade pitching.

Huntington already has made clear he will not move any of young starters Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, but he has made no such declaration regarding veteran relievers Salomon Torres, Damaso Marte or John Grabow. All are priced below market value, especially Marte, whose salary will drop to $2 million next season after an excellent 2007.

For another, the Pirates could take advantage of a rather fortunate circumstance in which as many as nine teams are searching for center fielders.

Huntington's tentative plan for next season is to have Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth duel for the starting job, with talented but enigmatic Chris Duffy going back to the minors to prove himself anew. Under normal conditions, there would be little if any interest among other teams in trading for Duffy, but these are not normal.

The Atlanta Braves had pressed hard for Duffy to be included in the Adam LaRoche trade last spring, only to settle for an exchange of prospects. They just lost Andruw Jones through free agency and have no internal replacement ready.

Florida general manager Larry Beinfest was known to have made several overtures to Dave Littlefield for Duffy last offseason, only to get frustrated by what he saw as outrageous demands from Littlefield. The Marlins love players who cost little, and Duffy's salary will be close to major-league minimum next year.

But, with Jones, Aaron Rowand and other far bigger fish available for center field, this could take time to develop, too.

Two other players who could be traded are outfielder Xavier Nady and infielder Jose Castillo. Nady is believed to be the Pirates' Plan B to be dealt if no solid return can be had for Bay, and Castillo is seen as a virtual lock to be non-tendered by the Dec. 12 deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players. Huntington's current stance, it should be noted, is that he plans to offer contracts to all of his arbitration-eligible players.

The Pirates could be busy, too, with adding to the bullpen and bench. Maybe even starting pitching.

To the latter category, they already have made contact with free agent Matt Clement, who is coming off surgery. But it is not known how seriously they will pursue him or other starters who might come as a discount, as agents for such players -- including Kris Benson -- say they have not heard from Huntington.

Any new relievers likely will come cheap. A possible exception is Japanese closer Kazuo Fukumori, a 31-year-old right-hander the Pirates and several other teams -- San Diego and the Colorado Rockies among them -- have approached. But even he will not be too expensive, coming off minor elbow surgery. Most of the rest of the free-agent relievers cost too much or are too old, but Shawn Chacon remains in play and in touch with the Pirates.

As for the bench, two former Pirates are in play there, too: Craig Wilson and Rob Mackowiak are free agents, and each is capable of filling multiple roles, as manager John Russell will be seeking. The team also remains in talks with utility infielder Chris Gomez.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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