Pirates stay out of early frenzy

This year, the fun of Major League Baseball's winter meetings began a week early.

Team executives, scouts and agents will begin descending on the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Fla., for the annual meetings after a busy week of signings and trades. The meetings begin Monday.

Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury already found a home, agreeing to terms with the New York Yankees for seven years and $153 million. The Mariners spent $240 million across 10 years to bring the best free agent in the class, second baseman Robinson Cano, to Seattle.

The Houston Astros traded for outfielder Dexter Fowler and the Washington Nationals acquired starter Doug Fister. The Oakland Athletics signed starter Scott Kazmir and made three trades.

The Pirates have not entered the fray. They have not signed a major league free agent. They have made three minor trades: to re-acquire reliever Duke Welker, add reliever Miles Mikolas and outfielder Jaff Decker and bring in Chris Stewart as a backup catcher.

"We continue to have a number of dialogues on a number of different fronts," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We were just not one of the clubs where something came together."

When the Pirates do engage, they will do so in a market that has changed. Starter Tim Lincecum, who had a 4.76 ERA over the past two seasons, re-signed with the San Francisco Giants for $35 million across two years. Kazmir, who did not pitch in the majors in 2012, signed for two years and $22 million after rebounding in Cleveland in 2013. Starter Phil Hughes got $24 million for three years from the Minnesota Twins after going 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA last season.

"We think there's a number of factors," Huntington said. "Quality and quantity of available talent, needs of clubs, more clubs feeling like they're closer to a playoff berth. There's any number of factors and there's several more above and beyond that, but it's been an active market.

"You typically look at Novembers past and that's where clubs that are aggressive go out and, in some people's minds, overpay for guys. The industry felt like we overpaid for [Russell] Martin a year ago."

The Pirates finished the regular season with a $73.6 million payroll, according to the Associated Press, citing MLB's latest calculations. They have $42.75 million committed to seven players for 2014, $5.5 million of that coming from Houston for Wandy Rodriguez. They tendered contracts to seven arbitration-eligible players, which adds about $20 million to the payroll.

The remaining 11 players on the 25-man active roster making at or near the major league minimum of $500,000 add another $5.5 million. Add that all together with the rest of the 40-man roster and the payroll will reach $70 million before any free agents are signed.

Finances have changed for the Pirates as well. The 2013 attendance figure of 2,256,862 was the second-highest total in franchise history, behind only the draw from the opening of PNC Park in 2001. That will lead to increased revenue, as will the new national TV contracts MLB has agreed to with Fox, TBS and ESPN.

Huntington cautioned recently that not all the increased revenue from the TV contracts reaches the teams. The commissioner's office diverts some of it to strategic initiatives -- MLB Advanced Media was a beneficiary in the past -- and the equal distribution dilutes the value.

"When all 30 teams get the same amount, its impact is relative," Huntington said.

Huntington did not identify a priority entering the meetings. Gaby Sanchez is the only first baseman on the 40-man roster after the team non-tendered Garrett Jones, but Huntington said left-handed Andrew Lambo is an option at first base.

ESPN reported last week that the Pirates were interested in free agent James Loney, who hit .299 with 13 home runs for Tampa Bay in 2013, and the Rangers' Mitch Moreland and Toronto's Adam Lind as trade targets. Both teams have options at first that would make a trade easier. Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales are free-agent options.

Lambo also will join a battle for right field, along with Decker, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata.

"That is one of the areas where, if we can improve the club, we'll look to do so at the right acquisition cost," Huntington said. "Otherwise, we do feel comfortable with those guys going into spring training and knowing that we've got Gregory Polanco on the horizon."

Huntington said the Pirates are comfortable with Jordy Mercer as their regular shortstop, but would like to add a strong defender to complement him. Clint Barmes, that player at the end of 2013, is a free agent.

"Barmes certainly is a guy that would fit that bill, but he's exploring what's out there in free agency, as are we," Huntington said.

Given the uncertainty regarding Rodriguez's health and A.J. Burnett's plan for 2014, the Pirates might try to upgrade the rotation. Burnett, who said earlier in the fall he planned to sign with the Pirates or retire, still has not decided.

"We've continued to try to be respectful of the process," Huntington said. "We unfortunately cannot wait forever."

Brett Anderson, who has had injury issues, but has proven effective when healthy, could be a trade target. Oakland might not have room for him in the rotation and media reports indicate he could be moved.

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

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