Pirates search on for more offense
The Pirates reportedly are interested in bringing back Nate McLouth, a 2000 Pirates draft pick who hit .228 in 81 games for the Braves last season.
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DALLAS -- The Pirates pursued offensive upgrades on the first day of the winter meetings Monday, but it might come at a position few expected.
The outfield -- not first base -- is where the front office seems to be honing its search for better bats. If the Pirates are unable to re-sign Derrek Lee , who has until Wednesday to accept or decline the team's arbitration invitation, general manager Neal Huntington said adding another first baseman to the roster "might not even be an option for us."
But in the outfield, the team would like a little more offensive output -- or a deeper bench -- than it currently has.
"That is one of the spots that we can look at, is there an update out there for us via trade, via free agency?" Huntington said. "And if not, then do we thicken it by going with a fourth outfielder that allows us some protection?"
The Pirates reportedly made inquiries on a familiar face -- Nate McLouth -- early Monday. McLouth hit .228 in 81 games last season for the Braves and .190 in 2010 in Atlanta. A 2000 draft pick by the Pirates, the team traded him to the Braves in '09 for pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez .
The team also has reportedly inquired about free agent outfielder Josh Willingham , a career .262 hitter who hit 29 home runs last season in Oakland.
In addition to the front office's concerns about a lack of power at the corner outfield positions -- currently inhabited by left fielder Alex Presley and right fielder Jose Tabata -- there are injury concerns about both. Tabata went on the disabled list in the middle of the season with a quad injury and was shut down in September after he injured his left wrist. Presley, who started the season in Class AAA, missed one month after getting hit by a pitch on his thumb.
"Our best upgrades may be depth," Huntington said. "Last year certainly reinforced the importance of depth. The first wave of injuries, we had some young players come up and continue our march forward. Second wave, we lost some steam. The third wave knocked us off the tracks. ... That's where our better additions for the club, our best use of our money, might be adding more bench."
Of the potential starting pitchers on the staff, all are right-handed, and outside of a couple big-name, high-dollar free agents, there aren't many options for quality left-handed starters.
"We're comfortable if our five starters are right-handed," Huntington said.
The Pirates identified pitching depth as an area of need this offseason, a need that was exacerbated when Morton had hip surgery that could keep him out of the rotation until May. The Pirates lost their lone left-handed starter, Paul Maholm , when they declined to pick up a one-year, $9.75 million option in October.
"If there's the right left-handed starter out there that fits for us, our ballpark is definitely beneficial to left-handed starters. But, it won't be a situation where we'll pursue a left-handed starter just to get a left-handed starter," Huntington said.
Should Lee decline the invitation to arbitration, Huntington said the Pirates will remain engaged with the first baseman in hopes of signing him to a new deal.
And Huntington said he expects Lee to wait until the two big-name free-agent first basemen -- Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder -- agree to terms on deals before he agrees to anything.
Huntington said he expects Lee, who has contemplated retirement, to play next season.
The Pirates are exploring options at third base in case Pedro Alvarez , the second overall draft pick in 2008, continues to struggle at the major league level.
"We're committed to Pedro as long as he's doing what he needs to do," Huntington said. "But we've got to build a contingency plan in place.
"We've got to give ourselves protection in case he's not doing what he needs to do both on and off the field."
The Pirates have reportedly inquired about free-agent third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart .
The team is pleased with Alvarez's work in a "structured" program this offseason. Alvarez struggled last season, and some of his problems were compounded by injuries that kept him out for the better part of two months.
Huntington said Alvarez likely would not play winter ball this year. Alvarez left open the option to join a team later in the season.
"We've got to work hard to help him achieve that ceiling and achieve that potential," he said. "But at the same time we've got a business to run. We've got to make sure we protect ourselves against the downside."
Huntington would not close the door on speculation the club might deal its closer, Joel Hanrahan , but he indicated such a trade is unlikely.
"Nobody's untradeable," Huntington said. "Nobody's untouchable. But there are some guys who are much tougher than others. If it makes sense for the organization, it's something we have to consider."
But the team is in no hurry to sign Hanrahan to a long-term deal, either.
Hanrahan is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, and Huntington said arbitration makes closers "expensive in a hurry."
"As we look at Joel and where we project his numbers going, he absolutely fits us for the next two years and hopefully beyond that," Huntington said. "We have two years of control with him and we could very easily see us closing games for him for the next two years, if not more."
Jim Trdinich of the Pirates has won the Robert O. Fishel Award for public relations excellence, given annually by Major League Baseball. Trdinich, the director of media relations, finished his 23rd season as a full-time employee of the Pirates and his 27th in Major League Baseball.
First Published December 6, 2011 12:00 am