LAS VEGAS -- The Pirates have yet to make a move through two days of Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings, but a significant project has begun behind the scenes: The team has initiated talks with three anchor players -- center fielder Nate McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit and pitcher Paul Maholm -- toward long-term contract extensions.
Multiple sources confirmed the talks, which, though in the earliest stages, could result in all three being extended through all three of their salary-arbitration years or beyond by cutting into free-agency time.
No one on any side would comment publicly, but team president Frank Coonelly last night explained the general approach the Pirates will take with such players.
"It's an important part of building a championship club, looking at multiyear deals, including those that buy out a year or more of free agency," Coonelly said. "You're always best off securing your own talents. But it has to be the right player. There has to be outstanding performance, makeup and mental toughness. I've seen clubs deploy this indiscriminately. We won't do that."
All three are coming off breakout seasons:
• McLouth, 27, batted .276 with 26 home runs and 94 RBIs and became the Pirates' first Gold Glove winner in 15 years. He made $425,500, close to the major league minimum, and is first-time eligible for arbitration, a process likely to quadruple that salary.
• Doumit, 27, batted .318 with 15 home runs and 69 RBIs and, most important given his injury history, stayed healthy enough to play 116 games. He made $412,000 and also is first-time eligible for arbitration.
• Maholm, 26, was by far the best pitcher on the staff, going a richly deceiving 9-9 with a 3.71 ERA in 31 starts.
Since new management took over in late 2007, a standard was set for locking up young players through arbitration with the multiyear contracts given to pitchers Ian Snell and Matt Capps.
The highlight of the second day of meetings, from the Pirates' standpoint, was word that Atlanta had inquired about two of those key players, McLouth and Maholm.
One source with direct knowledge described the Braves as going "pretty heavily" after one or both, adding that they could ratchet that up if they fall short in their bid to acquire free-agent starter A.J. Burnett.
But this development comes with two large asterisks:
1. The Pirates do not rule out trade talks regarding any player, and they have fielded other calls this offseason regarding all of what the front office often calls "the big four," that being McLouth, Doumit, Maholm and Capps. Thus, this is not unusual.
2. It would take an enormous bounty of talent for Atlanta to get one of McLouth or Maholm, much less both. The only possible return cited by the source was superb Class AA center-field prospect Jordan Schafer, 22.
After word broke in the afternoon, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was asked what it would take, in general, to get him to part with a key piece.
"The reality is, as we've talked about repeatedly, there are no untouchables," Huntington said. "If we can get back the right package for some players where the price is higher -- players we, quote-unquote, over-value -- if we get that package that allows us to make a positive impact on the organization, then we have to entertain it. Some, we can dismiss out of hand because there's a lack of fit. Others, we go through the process."
Would he need to be blown away?
"Blown away is strong. There are certain guys where, in our minds, we would need to get what we'd consider an over-pay. Those are deals you struggle to ask for. You don't want to get a reputation for asking too much."
An Atlanta official, asked later about the Pirates, said in a dismissive manner that their price was "way high."
Also yesterday, it became known that the Pirates have had several discussions with free-agent middle infielder David Eckstein, according to agent Ryan Gliechowski.
"Not negotiations," Gliechowski said. "Just conversations."
Eckstein, 33, made $4.5 million this past season while batting .265 with two home runs and 27 RBIs for the Toronto Blue Jays and Arizona Diamondbacks. He played for two championship teams, the 2002 Anaheim Angels and 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, and was World Series MVP for the latter.
Eckstein has played extensively at shortstop, including last season, but he might best fit at second base. And that, of course, calls into question not only the future of shortstop Jack Wilson in Pittsburgh but also second baseman Freddy Sanchez. If Wilson cannot be traded to clear his $7.25 million salary, Sanchez and his $6.1 million might go. Or it could be both.
The Wilson market appears to be dwindling.
The Minnesota Twins have mild interest, one American League source confirmed last night, but they want the Pirates to pick up much of Wilson's salary. The Los Angeles Dodgers, turned off by the Pirates' asking price, have turned their attention to re-signing free agent Rafael Furcal. Other teams in the market for a shortstop have not been connected to Wilson.
Huntington was asked if there remains a serious suitor for Wilson.
"I think there are teams still looking for shortstops, and I think there are shortstops still available," he replied.
On other fronts:
• Add John Grabow to the list of those who have not been offered extensions. He can be a free agent after next season. He made $1,135,000 this past season, one in which he cemented his status as one of the National League's most reliable left-handed relievers.
• The Pirates have fielded inquiries about Grabow, but teams seeking bullpen help -- that would be all of them -- seem intent on first wading through free agents.
• The only one of the remaining Pirates on the market being discussed to any extent is catcher Ronny Paulino, a clear indication of the industry-wide need at that position. It is helping the Pirates' cause -- and Paulino's, as he would welcome a trade -- that he currently is batting .310 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 19 games in the Dominican Winter League.
NOTES -- Fallout from the financial plight of the U.S. auto industry has struck the Pirates as General Motors Corp. chose not to renew its sponsorship deal with the club, Coonelly revealed yesterday. "It was a very significant deal for us," he said without being specific on the value of the agreement. ... Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' first-round draft pick in June, will be invited to the major league portion of spring training, Huntington confirmed, because of a clause in his contract. ... Pitcher Phil Dumatrait, recovering from shoulder surgery, is spending the week in Las Vegas to remain under the supervision of the Pirates' medical staff, all of which is here. ... The Pirates never made a formal contract offer to free-agent infielder Mark Loretta, who signed late Monday with the Dodgers for one year at $1.25 million.