Winter Meetings: A big splash by the Pirates?

Teams calls it unlikely, but down market, payroll room make it possible

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INDIANAPOLIS -- A big splash by the Pirates?

Of Major League Baseball's 30 teams attending the Winter Meetings that begin this morning at the Indiana Convention Center, it is safe to say that the one from Pittsburgh is seen as least likely to raise an eyebrow, much less a fuss.

Still ...

One blue-chip agent e-mailed the Post-Gazette late last week to say: "My info is that Huntington and Co. are very concerned about public perception and season tickets," in reference to whom the Pirates might pursue this offseason.

Huntington is the Pirates' general manager and, even though the projected payroll for the current roster is $34 million, team president Frank Coonelly has made it known that there is ample leeway should Huntington find talent that he believes would be a good fit.

"Neal's got room," Coonelly said. "Trust me, he's out there working to use it. He's got significant flexibility."

Coonelly and Huntington are not saying exactly how much room, largely because they do not wish to give agents bargaining leverage. But the Pirates spent $49 million on their 40-man roster this year, so that leaves something in the range of a $15 million gap assuming the budget does not change. That could buy an awful lot of baseball talent, even with the sport's increasingly imbalanced economics.

So, big splash?

Matt Holliday or Jason Bay for the outfield?

Rich Harden for the rotation and Mike Gonzalez for the bullpen?

Highly unlikely, to hear Huntington tell it.

"The key word you're going to be hearing from us is value," Huntington said. "We could do something big just so that we can feel good about ourselves and show everybody that we did something or that we're spending up to a certain level. But we're not going to do that unless it makes sense and unless there's a real value to the Pittsburgh Pirates."

"Value," as Huntington defined it, does not necessarily mean inexpensive. Rather, he said, is means not overpaying for a player simply because he is a free agent, where values for many players get inflated by races between teams to sign someone.

The Pirates have not yet contacted any of the agents representing those elite free agents mentioned above, but, if ever there were a chance to find the kind of value Huntington describes, this market would appear to be set to provide it. And that is because, depending on one's perspective, the owners are willfully exaggerating the effects of the national economic downturn and trying to bring player prices down, or the economy is having a real effect. Even the New York Yankees, who just won the World Series with a $215 million payroll, are reported to be cutting to $185 million or so. Others are known to be cutting, too.

For now, though, the Pirates appear to remain focused on the lower-end values available: Their known free-agent contacts have included a couple of prominent names, notably outfielder Rick Ankiel and first baseman Hank Blalock, each represented by super-agent Scott Boras. But the rest are at a lower level, including shortstop Bobby Crosby, starters Justin Duchscherer and Noah Lowry, and relievers J.J. Putz, Ron Villone and Kameron Loe.

Trades are a possibility, too, though Huntington has stated several times that he is not shopping anyone. Teams have inquired -- and continue to inquire -- about closer Matt Capps, catcher Ryan Doumit and, to a lesser extent, starters Paul Maholm and Zach Duke. But Capps and Doumit are at perhaps the lowest value of their careers, which goes against the model Huntington has set with previous trades. And Maholm and Duke would be moved only for a significant return.

Positionally, Huntington's priorities are, in order, plenty of bullpen help with a left-handed focus, a shortstop to push Ronny Cedeno, and a first baseman/outfielder on a short-term deal while the team awaits top outfield prospect Jose Tabata.

Murtaugh's day

The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee will announce at 10 a.m. today its vote on, among several candidates, former Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh.

If Murtaugh makes it on his second year on the Veterans ballot, he would be the fourth member from the Pirates elected as manager. The others: Ned Hanlon, Connie Mack and Bill McKechnie. Six others were inducted after managing the Pirates, including Honus Wagner, their greatest player, but they made it as players or executives.

Murtaugh still has family in the Pittsburgh area, including granddaughter Collen Hroncich of Cranberry, who has led the push with help from the Pirates.

"We're all a bit nervous," Hroncich said yesterday. "I mostly just try to put it out of my mind. Last time, we didn't even know he was on the ballot until a few days before the vote, so we've had a much longer time to be nervous this time around. It's very exciting, too, though."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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