Pirates plan patience with offseason moves

Wilson, Grabow, Paulino discussed in trades; little in free agency

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The way general manager Neal Huntington sees it, the Pirates' coming winter could be downright tumultuous.

Or not.

"It could be an offseason where there is a significant change or one where almost nothing happens," he said. "Quite honestly, it has the makings of an either-or scenario, depending on what happens with other clubs and the industry."

What that means, translated from GM-speak, is this: If the Pirates find what they feel is equal or better value in veteran-for-prospect trades, they will make them. Ditto for free agents. If they feel someone is worth it, and can be part of the long-term future, they will pay.

If not ...

"We're not going to make moves just to make them. We're trying to get better."

That probably sounds, to a great chunk of the Pirates' precarious fan base, little different than most of the offseason agendas for the 16 losing seasons that lead into 2009. No promise of an immediate upgrade. No promise to spend big money. No clear indication of hope until the not-so-near future.


Pirates of the Caribbean
The Post-Gazette will begin this weekend a three-part series on the Pirates' work in the Dominican Republic:
  • SUNDAY
  • The blueprint: A young pitcher sees his life change with one handshake, but the path to Pittsburgh is a long one
  • MONDAY
  • The structure: A $5 million academy, set to open next summer, is but one piece of making up for several lost years.
  • TUESDAY
  • The architect: Rene Gayo, Latin American scouting director, must fight back emotions in a setting where he is treated like a deity.

But Huntington is adamant, as is the entire front office, that the plan this new administration set in motion last fall is making progress toward developing a deep organization. And all concerned are equally adamant that the most prominent moves made this winter must fit into that category.

"We are not throwing 2009 to the wind and saying, 'Well, we'll win again sometime in the future.' We know we need to win, and sooner rather than later, and we're going to show up, work hard, prepare, teach and go out to win every game" Huntington said. "But, if we can trade a veteran player and it brings us 12-18 years of control instead of one or two, and we don't take that large of a step backward, that's just good business."

And that is why, according to multiple sources, no fewer than of the Pirates' five veterans -- shortstop Jack Wilson, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, first baseman Adam LaRoche, reliever John Grabow and catcher Ronny Paulino -- already have been part of trade talks, to some degree or other.

In the cases of Sanchez and LaRoche, by all accounts, they have been mere inquiries from the outside. But the other three have come up in several directions.

"Wilson and Grabow are out there, and they're really pushing Paulino," one American League executive said.

The headliner has been Wilson , as had been universally expected. And the prime suitors, the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers, are the same teams that sought him most aggressively with each of the past two July trading deadlines, the Tigers last year and the Dodgers this year.

Detroit has what the Pirates most covet, which is pitching prospects, but the Tigers' main issue with a Wilson trade, according to one source, is that they cannot take on more salary without shedding some. Wilson will make $7.25 million next year with an $8.4 million club option for 2010 that carries a $600,000 buyout.

That could mean the Pirates would have to assume salary from Detroit or pay part of what Wilson is owed. The Pirates would be willing to discuss the latter, probably, but only if the prospect return is exceptional.

The Los Angeles scenario is similar. The Dodgers have prospects, too, and, according to a Wednesday report by Yahoo!, want the Pirates to pay "a huge chunk" of Wilson 's remaining money. Fox Sports reported earlier in the week that the Pirates sought shortstop Chin-Lung Hu, outfielder Delwyn Young and a third player, but Los Angeles pulled away.

The Pirates do not see Hu, a .193 hitter in his first 77 major league games, as anything more than a defensive replacement for Wilson , so the rest of the trade component will be key. By no means will Hu be the centerpiece.

At least two other teams have had talks with the Pirates regarding Wilson -- all of them one-on-one, with no multiple-team deal ever being broached -- but it is not known which two. The internal thinking is that a handful of prominent free-agent shortstops -- notably Rafael Furcal, Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera -- must find new employers before there will be a seat in the musical chairs for Wilson .

One other caveat: Wilson has a limited no-trade clause in which he can veto a deal to six teams, including Detroit . Those involved believe it would not be an issue.

And there is this, too ...

"Jack Wilson might very well be our shortstop the next two years," Huntington said. "Our finances are in good order, and any trades we make will be made for baseball reasons."

Grabow and Paulino, apparently, fall into the same category.

Nearly a dozen teams had inquired about Grabow at the July deadline, but the Pirates were dissatisfied with all offers and kept him. The same should apply now, although Grabow's status as a pending free agent -- he is eligible after next season -- means his trade value could diminish with each game in 2009.

Paulino is different. Catching is a hot commodity, but the handful of teams who have discussed him with the Pirates apparently hope to capitalize on a perceived low-point value, as Paulino was banished to the minors in June. The Pirates are resisting that, given that they have no ruled out Paulino could back up Ryan Doumit next year.

As for trades involving the Pirates' most important long-term pieces at the top level -- Doumit, center fielder Nate McLouth, starter Paul Maholm and closer Matt Capps -- there has yet to be a single substantive discussion on any front, and none is expected. No players under this management are deemed untouchable, but these four are as close as it gets.

Free-agent signings, as always with the Pirates, can be expected later rather than sooner, once the most expensive types are gone. And maybe not much should be anticipated at all.

The plan entering this offseason was to target a legitimate, if not marquee, starter to complement the rotation, and it is believed that there contact earlier this month with right-hander Paul Byrd, 38, who went 11-12 with a 4.60 ERA for the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox last year. But the general sentiment about a free-agent starter appears to have shifted sharply in recent weeks.

"I think the starting pitching market had a lot of hype as being one of the deepest ever, and so we thought maybe we could get a guy who might be a great value," Huntington said. "I don't know that that's going to happen because I don't know that the market is as deep as everyone believed when they began to actually apply present-day and projected abilities to this group."

Huntington acknowledged that the Pirates have made free-agent contract offers, but it is wholly possible he was referring to fringe pitching depth.

"We're kicking the tires on every 4-A starter out there," he said.

He expressed measured confidence in the state of the rotation for next year, largely because of what the team feels is good depth. Only Maholm will have a job locked up entering spring training, with Ian Snell and Zach Duke probably on a second tier, followed in no particular order by Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, Tom Gorzelanny and, if healthy, Phil Dumatrait.

"Last year, I made the mistake of saying in December that we had five starters and those would be the ones we'd go with, and it became that we locked in our rotation," Huntington said. "We've now got seven, nine, maybe 10 players competing for the position."

He tossed in the names of journeyman Jason Davis and prospects Jimmy Barthmaier and Daniel McCutchen.

The Pirates also had discussed acquiring a right-handed power bat for the outfield through free agency, but there has been no known movement on that front.

Two free agents who have not yet received offers are bench mainstays and clubhouse leaders Doug Mientkiewicz and Jason Michaels. Each is mulling offers from other teams with an aim of finding everyday duty, something the Pirates will not promise to either. There appears to be a mutual understanding that each will talk with the Pirates again.

"The market could take some time for those guys to bear out, but we're hopeful they come back," Huntington said.


NOTES -- Outfielder Brandon Moss, who had surgery last month to address a lack of cartilage in his left knee, should be ready to play "if not opening day, then soon thereafter," Huntington said "There's nothing that tells us he won't be ready opening day." Moss is rehabilitating at the University of Georgia .. ... There are no other 40-man roster injury issues. The only setback with an existing condition: Dumatrait, coming off August shoulder surgery, "was pushed back a little" and has not thrown yet. ... The Houston Astros recently expressed interest in free-agent pitcher John Van Benschoten as a hitter, but he wants to keep pitching. Van Benschoten, cut loose by the Pirates earlier this month, was the NCAA's home run champion in 2001, but a lingering ailment in his left -- non-throwing -- shoulder has hurt his swing over the years.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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