Despite success, Pirates look to be non-competitive in free agency

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The Pirates' long-time difficulty in competing in the uneven economic playing field that exists in MLB was driven home again by recent events, which serve to cast doubt on the ability of the franchise to compete successfully on a regular basis.

As is well known, the Pirates chose not to make a $14.1 million qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett, their best pitcher the past two season. In explaining the move, which removes the Pirates from receiving a high draft choice if Burnett signs elsewhere, general manager Neal Huntington said, ''$14 million in one player was a bit steep for us."

Now consider these statistics from the 2012-13 seasons:

Player A was 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in 393 1/3 innings.

Player B was 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA in 383 2/3 innings.

Player C was 18-23 with a 4.12 ERA in 389 innings.

Of the three, Player A -- Burnett -- had the best record, the lowest ERA and pitched the most innings. The Pirates could not afford to pay him $14.1 million.

Player B is Tim Lincecum, who had the worst record of the three. He was extended by the San Francisco Giants for two years at $35 million.

Player C is Ervin Santana, who is a free agent and expected to receive a contract that will average at least $15 million a season for as many as five years.

Burnett is a comparative bargain next to Lincecum and Santana, but the Pirates might not be able to afford him. It’s possible they might still sign Burnett. But since the team, according to manager Clint Hurdle, is having trouble contacting him, that tends to make a signing look less likely than it once did.

Journeyman outfielder Marlon Byrd, who played the final six weeks of the season with the Pirates and made major contributions, signed with Philadelphia for two years, $16 million earlier this week. If the Pirates were involved in discussions with Byrd, more than likely they removed themselves, and understandably so, when the parameters of the deal became two years and $16 million.

An upgrade at shortstop would do wonders for the Pirates and would allow Jordy Mercer, tentatively pencilled in at the position, to platoon at second base with Neil Walker or give Pedro Alvarez and occasional day off at third base.

The two top shortstops on the market are Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta. Drew has been projected to receive a four-year, $48 million deal; Peralta three-years, $36 million. Does anyone believe the Pirates will go that far for a shortstop when they have Mercer available at roughly $500,000.

Huntington did an outstanding job last offseason in the free-agent market, landing Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. He was aggressive in going after Martin and signed him at the end of November while other teams were dallying. He got Liriano later in the offseason after many teams had filled their needs.

Both were signed to two-year contracts, which in the recent history of the Pirates as about as far as they go. Most quality free agents expect and get more than two years.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Pirates now being a destination point for quality free agents. There’s an element of truth to that but only if the team is willing to pay. A beautiful ballpark and an enthusiastic fan base are a distant second and third to total salary when it comes to free agents.

People will scream about the Pirates being cheap. It’s not about being cheap. It’s about having the revenue to compete. No fair-minded person should expect owner Bob Nutting to spend greater than the team’s revenues allow.

Yes, those revenues are up. But it’s not likely they are up high enough to afford the salaries of the players who can make the Pirates a better team.

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