Pirates options in free agency

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There’s a reason most of the 2014 free agents, particularly the ones who fit the Pirates’ budget, are available. In many, if not most cases, their previous team did not want them. That is the state of MLB today. Most of the players worth keeping are kept. Most of those in the free-agent market are flawed.

The players with near-impeccable credentials, such as second baseman Robinson Cano, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and catcher Brian McCann, are either out of the Pirates' price range and/or play a position where the team does not have a need.

That doesn’t mean there are not players, if signed, who will enable the Pirates to improve. There are several, at least, but the competition, even for flawed players, figures to be intense and definitely not for those who come without reasonably deep pockets.

Outfielder Marlon Byrd, for example, has been projected by MLBTradeRumors.com, well-respected in such matters, as likely drawing a two-year, $16 million offer. Yahoo suggested Byrd should get three years.

Here are two of the better free-agent rankings: Jeff Passan of Yahoo, who not only ranks 200 players but does so with a humorous bent; HardballTalk.com ranks the top 150 with some smart insights.

Let’s discuss some of the Pirates options and we’ll start with the most obvious:

A.J. Burnett: Some were surprised when the Pirates did not make the $14.1 million qualifying offer to Burnett, which would have guaranteed them a high draft choice, late first round or better, if he signed with another team. Why should anyone be surprised? Since when do the Pirates offer one-year, $14.1 million contracts to anyone, let alone a pitcher who projects as their third-best starter? That’s not to suggest they shouldn’t have done it -- they should -- but only that it’s not surprising. They have a long history that speak clearly to them not moving in that direction.

There is a theory, not without merit, that the Pirates felt no need to make such an offer because Burnett was not going to sign with another team. It’s true, he has made such a statement. He also said -- and many seem to have missed this or choose to ignore it -- that he could change his mind. If Burnett signs elsewhere, the Pirates may not be kicking themselves -- they have a plan -- but a lot of other people will.

Marlon Byrd: Can we please stop with the talk the Pirates don’t want to sign Byrd for more than one year because he’d be blocking Gregory Polanco in 2015. Block/schmock. Where is it written that every stud prospect must be immediately granted full-time duty. There’s something to be said for breaking in a young player gently, picking the spots for him. The Pirates should not allow a concern about blocking Polanco in 2015 to play a role in their 2014 strategy. They are a contender, not a doormat.

At two-years, $16 million, Byrd is a gamble. His history is that of an adequate player. The fact he had the best year of his career in 2013 at ages 35/36 should be of concern to any interested team.

Jhonny Peralta: He should be the team’s No. 1 free-agent target for several reasons. He’s an upgrade at shortstop over Jordy Mercer and he’s a good enough hitter that he gives the team power protection if it fails to upgrade at first base or right field. Peralta swings a good enough bat that he mostly hit sixth in the Detroit Tigers’ power-packed lineup.

He drove in 81 and 86 runs in 2010 and 2011. He had no chance to do that last season because of a 50-game suspension for violation of MLB’s drug policy. But the Tigers welcomed him back -- and he responded by batting .353 with an .898 OPS in the postseason -- and so should every other team.

An added advantage to signing Peralta, 31, is it frees Mercer to platoon at second base with Neil Walker. Mercer is too good a hitter vs. left-handed pitching to keep on the bench. If he doesn’t straight platoon with Walker, he needs to get almost every start against lefties, be it a second, shortstop or third base.

By most expert accounts, Peralta is due a contract worth about $9 to $10 million annually for two or three years.

Corey Hart: He missed all of last season with injury and might not be ready for Opening Day due to knee surgery. The advantage to that medical history is that it will drive down his price. Hart, a right-handed hitter who will be 32, can play first base and the outfield but might be limited to first due to his surgery.

He has an impressive resume. From 2010-12, he hit 31, 26 and 30 home runs. His career OPS is .825 and for those three seasons it was .865, .866 and .841. He is being projected as receiving a one-year deal worth about $8 million, with incentives built in to reward him if he plays as well as he did from 2010-12.

James Loney: As a left-handed batter, he’d be a fairly ideal platoon mate at first base for Gaby Sanchez. He had a .798 OPS vs. right-handed pitching last year and Sanchez had a .987 OPS vs. left-handed pitching. The problem with that is Loney, 29, might balk at a deal where he’d be a platoon player. He is believed to see himself as an everyday player, although the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. Loney is not a big home run guy. He’s never hit more than 15, and that was in 2007. From from 2008-10, he averaged 89 RBIs.

Mike Morse: He hit 31 home runs as recently as 2011, but has not played especially well since. In his final 297 at bats last season, much of which he missed with injury, Morse, who will be 32, batted .208 with a .598 OPS. He can played first base and the outfield.

This is the complete list, by position, of MLB free agents.

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