Annual shopping trip set to begin for Pirates

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The dice are in the air.

The Pirates rolled them Monday, when they declined to exercise contract options on four players. The goal now is to fill the voids created by their departures via free agency, which begins today, and through the trade market.

"We realize there's a risk when you take a step back, but, as we looked at the dollars that need to be invested, as we looked at potential external options, we felt that it was our best decision to take a chance to decline the options and work through this offseason," general manager Neal Huntington said Monday.

There remains a chance that one or more of the four -- starter Paul Maholm, catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, and shortstop Ronny Cedeno -- could return with a new contract.

The Pirates also can offer salary arbitration to Snyder and Doumit as well as fellow Type B free agents Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick by Nov. 23 in an attempt to get a compensatory draft pick.

If the Pirates offer one of them arbitration and he signs with another team, the Pirates will receive a draft pick between the first and second rounds of the 2012 draft.

The outfield is crowded with Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, so the Pirates likely will not attempt to retain Ludwick, but Huntington has said they would like to re-sign Lee.

For now, declining the options freed $24.55 million from the 2012 payroll, which will help a team that has nine players eligible for arbitration though still under team control and give them some wiggle room in the free-agent market.

The Pirates need to fill holes at catcher, first base, shortstop and in the starting rotation by signing free agents, trading for them or turning to internal options.

This is, however, a weak free-agent market in which the quality will drop quickly after pitcher C.J. Wilson, first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder and shortstop Jose Reyes. Many of the serviceable catchers available are in their mid-30s, and only a few available shortstops produced attractive 2011 numbers.

There are first basemen available, as well as starting pitchers, but, after losing Maholm, the Pirates are short on left-handed starters, which will be harder to come by this offseason. As of now, the Pirates starters are Kevin Correia, James McDonald, Charlie Morton (recovering from hip surgery) and Jeff Karstens, and all are right-handed. So is candidate Brad Lincoln, who started for the Pirates in the second half of 2011.

The Pirates have options at catcher, though none provide enough at the plate. Michael McKenry, acquired by trade in June, gained the trust of the pitching staff and played solid defense. But he also had a meager .276 on-base percentage. An elbow injury kept Jason Jaramillo on the minor league disabled list for much of the season. He hit .326 in 43 at-bats games for the Pirates near the end of the season, but has a career .235 average in 119 major league games over three seasons.

Chase d'Arnaud the leading internal candidate at shortstop, hit .217 in 2011. Garrett Jones, who played 34 games at first base, hit .243 and struggled against left-handed pitchers.

"We obviously knew what the free-agent market was going to be," Huntington said. "We've got some feel as to what the trade market has the chance to be. The main decision is an effort to try to continue to take steps forward.

The free-agent talks most likely will pick up speed after the Nov. 23 deadline, when players and agents know whether or not they received arbitration offers. The Pirates also could be aggressive at the winter meetings in early December as they were last year when they signed Correia, Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.


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