With Rocco Baldelli lost, the Pirates will continue to look to outside options -- free agency or a trade -- for their coveted right-handed, power-hitting outfielder, general manager Neal Huntington said yesterday.
But he also stressed that they could turn to an internal option.
"Steve Pearce is a viable option, and he has been from day one," Huntington said.
Pearce, 25, was named minor league player of the year in 2007 by two national publications after batting .333 with 31 home runs across three levels, then concluding his summer in Pittsburgh. But he never found traction last season, batting .251 with 12 home runs in 103 games for Class AAA Indianapolis, then .248 with four home runs the rest of the way for the Pirates.
That has prompted management to tentatively view Pearce's best path as one in which he plays regularly in Indianapolis to address a lack of selectivity at the plate and subpar defense. That scenario leaves Nyjer Morgan as a regular outfielder in Pittsburgh, alongside Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss.
But, according to Huntington, that view could change if Pearce has an encouraging spring, including using him off the bench.
"We like Steve and feel like he can be a good big leaguer, but there's still some development left despite his age," Huntington said. "We didn't want to have him sitting on the bench if we could find a legitimate option to do that at the major league level. It's possible Pearce could be that legitimate option."
Baldelli was formally crossed off that list yesterday when he agreed to terms with the Boston Red Sox on a one-year, incentive-laden deal clearly influenced by concerns about his health: His base pay will be $500,000, and that salary will rise to $2.25 million if he stays off the disabled list all season. He can achieve another $3 million in bonuses based on plate appearances, kicking in at 325 and topping out at 600.
Plate appearances will not be easy to find in Boston, which has an outfield of Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew, along with David Ortiz at designated hitter. But Baldelli made a priority of staying in the American League, in part because the DH gives him a fallback if his chronic condition -- one that causes his muscles to weaken easily -- prevents him from taking the field. He also welcomed playing near his native Cumberland, R.I.
"I figured this was the decision I was going to make," Baldelli told reporters last night in Boston. "It happened fairly quickly, everything got wrapped up, and I couldn't be happier."
The Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies -- all National League teams -- were the other finalists.
Details of the Pirates' final offer are not known, except that their base pay would have been higher than what Baldelli accepted from Boston.
Huntington's outside options might not be as attractive as Baldelli, but some still exist ...
The Pirates have had trade talks with the New York Yankees regarding outfielders Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady, one high-level source said yesterday, but nothing sounds likely to come of that.
In Swisher's case, he is owed $22 million the next three years and is coming off a down season in which he batted .219 with 24 home runs and 69 RBIs. Moreover, the Yankees are seeking pitching, the Pirates' most precious commodity, so the match is poor. The source described the chance of a Swisher deal being done as "a long shot."
A Nady deal is seen as even less likely, and the talks on that front have been no more than cursory. The primary reason: The Yankees could not get back as much as they gave up for Nady and reliever Damaso Marte in the teams' July 26 trade -- outfield prospect Jose Tabata and starters Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen -- and that could make for an awkward set of circumstances.
Nady can become a free agent after the coming season.
Several other teams have been in touch with the Yankees about their outfielders.
On a free-agency front that is getting increasingly thin on right-handed, power-hitting outfielders, Huntington said the Pirates are looking at players in the comeback mold.
"There still are a couple guys out there who might not have had a great 2008 but are still major league caliber players, and maybe we can get a bounce-back year," he said. "And you know what? If the right guy out there is left-handed, we absolutely can go in that direction, too."
The remaining free agents who fit that bounce-back profile are Emil Brown, who batted .244 with 13 home runs for the Oakland Athletics; Craig Monroe, who batted .202 with eight home runs for the Minnesota Twins; and Jonny Gomes, who batted .182 with eight home runs for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Pirates also are seeking starting pitching through free agency, but there are no known major pursuits. Rather, they are likely to add depth at the upper end of the minors.