Winter Meetings: Pirates, Vazquez reach framework
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LAS VEGAS -- The Pirates and free-agent utility infielder Ramon Vazquez agreed to the framework of a two-year, $4 million contract, and the team essentially swapped left-handed pitchers in the Rule 5 draft on the final day of Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings.
Add those transactions to the not-exactly-seismic Wednesday trade of Ronny Paulino, and that was it.
"Amazingly quiet," general manager Neal Huntington said of the Meetings as a whole. "I've never seen anything like it. I think everyone's trying to feel each other out, figure out who still has money to spend on free agents, who's trying to quietly cut payroll. And there are clubs like us somewhere in the middle, where they have some money but are trying to spend it wisely."
Vazquez, the Pirates surely hope, will provide an example of the latter.
He is 32, so he hardly fits the broader goal of building for the future, but he is coming off a season with the Texas Rangers in which he batted a career-high .290 -- well above his overall career average of .257 -- with six home runs, 18 doubles and 40 RBIs in 300 at-bats. He also played all four infield positions, including 26 games at shortstop.
Given that he has not taken more than 300 at-bats since 2003, while with the San Diego Padres, he will be pegged for now as a general backup, similar to the role Chris Gomez filled this past season. But it also is no secret that the Pirates are pushing for a trade of shortstop Jack Wilson and would listen to offers for second baseman Freddy Sanchez, and the departure of either could change that.
The financial terms of Vazquez's contract were mostly completed yesterday morning -- though all numbers are subject to change until signed -- and the team was waiting for Vazquez to take a physical, which could happen this morning, agent Melvin Roman said.
"We hope to have something very soon," Roman said.
"A few things to iron out," Huntington said.
The signing of Vazquez surely would end the pursuit of another free agent, David Eckstein.
The Pirates' Rule 5 draft pick was reliever Donnie Veal, plucked from the Chicago Cubs' system with the fourth overall pick. With the eighth pick, the Detroit Tigers claimed starter Kyle Bloom from the Pirates' Class AA affiliate in Altoona.
Veal, 24, could be quite the project.
He was shared the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year honors in 2006, and Baseball America rated him that system's No. 2 prospect entering the following season. He would record 131 strikeouts in 130 innings that summer but also a gaudy 73 walks for Class AA Tennessee, and that trend continued this past season, when he went 5-10 for the same affiliate with a 4.52 ERA, 123 strikeouts and 81 walks in 29 starts.
Clearly having hit a wall, he was assigned by the Cubs to pitch -- in relief -- in the prospect-rich Arizona Fall League and fared worse, with a 10.00 ERA, nine strikeouts and 13 walks in nine innings.
Still, the Pirates liked his potential enough to take a chance. Veal's fastball was clocked by their scouts up to 95 mph two years ago before dipping to 88-93 this past season, and he has a dynamic changeup and slider. So, when Huntington's staff wrapped up its list to prepare for the Rule 5 draft, Veal's name was one of three on it.
The plan is to give Veal a chance to crack the Pirates' 25-man roster this spring but to add him only if he displays better control after extensive work with new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and minor league pitching coordinator Troy Buckley. A Rule 5 pick must remain on a team's 25-man roster all of the following season for his rights to be retained. If he does not, half the $50,000 the Pirates paid yesterday gets refunded, and the player must be offered back to his original team.
Huntington acknowledged concern about the control and, to that end, will look at Veal only in relief.
"A year ago, this was one of the better left-handed prospects in the game," Huntington said. "He went through some adversity this year, and we feel that influenced his performance. But we do feel there's arm strength and a breaking ball. If this works, we'll have a very interesting left-hander. If not, nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Bloom, 25, went 5-8 with a 4.19 ERA for Altoona this past season but was exceptional in the recently completed Hawaiian Winter League schedule, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA in seven starts, with 32 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30 innings.
"I think it was a combination of an experienced Class AA pitcher in essentially a Class A league," Huntington said. "Historically, left-handed pitchers with changeups do very well in A-ball leagues. And I think Kyle, to his credit, made some adjustments and his velocity came up a little bit. But look, Detroit made a good selection."
The Pirates also claimed three pitchers in the minor league phase of the Rule 5, all out of Latin American summer leagues. In order of rounds, the players were Andres Santos, 22, from the New York Yankees; Rafael Quintero, 21, from the Cleveland Indians; and Gerardo Esparza, 21, from the Seattle Mariners. The first two were playing in the Dominican Republic, Esparza in Venezuela.
Representatives for two of those three teams later approached the Pirates to ask how they learned about those players, as Rule 5 choices rarely come directly out of Latin America.
Huntington credited director of player development Kyle Stark, director of baseball operations Bryan Minniti and the team's statistical guru, Dan Fox, for "extensive, exhaustive work in identifying these talents for us."
The Pirates lost no players in the minor league phase.
Two other developments:
• Huntington met with Greg Landry, representative for free-agent utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz, and no contract offer was made by the team. Given that other parties are interested in Mientkiewicz, that does not make a return to Pittsburgh look likely, though the Pirates still insist they want him back.
• The Minnesota Twins re-signed free agent Nick Punto and declared he will be their starting shortstop, thus ending a brief, tepid show of interest in Wilson. The only known possible suitor is Los Angeles, and that is contingent on the Dodgers not re-signing Rafael Furcal.
"As we stand right now, Jack Wilson is our shortstop for 2009, and that's not a bad thing," Huntington said.
NOTES -- The Pirates have until midnight tonight to tender their eight arbitration-eligible players -- outfielder Nate McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit, first baseman Adam LaRoche, and pitchers Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, John Grabow, Tyler Yates and Denny Bautista -- but will announce their decisions well before that. Bautista probably will be non-tendered. ...The 40-man roster is at 39, pending the addition of Vazquez.
First Published December 12, 2008 12:00 am