Watching free agent parade



DALLAS — Free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes agreed a $106-million contract Sunday on the eve of the winter meetings. This afternoon, closer Heath Bell stood at a podium at the Hilton Anatole and answered questions about his new, $27-million deal. Sluggers Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder soon will choose from among colossal offers.

The parade of big-money free agents is passing by the Pirates — which is the way management wants it.

“The best use of our money might be adding to our depth,” GM Neal Huntington said Monday. “For us to take steps forward every year, it’s going to be our young guys who need to continue to get better, whether that means (they) get healthy or perform up to their potential. That’s where our biggest improvements are always going to come from, and then we’ll supplement through free agency.”

Looking to bolster a team that lost 95 games last season, Huntington made no moves on the first day of the winter meetings. And as the possibility of re-signing Derrek Lee dwindles, Huntington acknowledged that finding a power-hitting first baseman might be impossible this offseason.

“First base might not be an option for us,” Huntington said. “We may add to the club by thickening the bench, or by adding a starting pitcher or a reliever. We’ve got some holes to fill, but we don’t feel like we’ve desperately got to do anything. If we can upgrade, outstanding. If we can upgrade at an appropriate acquisition cost, even better.”

»»» Closer Joel Hanrahan is in his second year of arbitration eligibility, and likely will see his salary rise to between $3 million and $4 million in 2012. The Pirates would prefer to sign Hanrahan to a new contract rather than go to arbitration, but they have not yet begun negotiations. Huntington was asked if the Pirates would consider offering Hanrahan a multi-year deal. His response was noncommittal: “If it’s the right fit, we’re open to it with anybody. But it’s got to be the right contract, the right years.”

Based on the Pirates’ history with players whose paycheck is about to launch into the stratosphere, Hanrahan would seem to be an excellent trade candidate. “Nobody’s untradeable, but there are some guys where it’s much tougher than others,” Huntington said. “If it makes sense for the organization, (a trade) is something we have to consider. We’ve got Joel pre-free agency for two more years. Closers get expensive in a hurry because of the arbitration system. As we look at Joel and where we project his numbers going, he absolutely fits for us the next two years and hopefully beyond that. We have two years of control with him. We can very easily see him closing games for us for the next two years, if not beyond.”

»»» Huntington refused to say whether or not the Pirates will use their pick in the Rule 5 draft on Thursday. If they decide to make a pick, they first will have to drop someone from the 40-man roster.

»»» Ron Santo was elected to the Hall of Fame by the veterans’ committee. Santo was listed on 15 of the 16 ballots. Twelve votes were necessary for induction. Luis Tiant, who pitched in nine games for the Pirates in 1981, was among five candidates who got fewer than three votes.


McLouth might return

Remember this guy?
Remember this guy?

DALLAS — Nate McLouth is interested in rejoining the Pirates, and the team has begun talking with the free-agent outfielder about a possible contract. This morning, sources in both camps confirmed there is mutual interest.

McLouth, 30, was an All-Star for the Pirates in 2008, when he batted .276 with an .853 OPS. In spring training the next year, he was rewarded with a three-year, $15.75-million contract. But less than four months later, he was dealt to Altanta for pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. McLouth has put up two disappointing seasons with the Braves. In that span, he’s played only 166 games and batted .210 with a .650 OPS.

The Pirates have Alex Presley penciled in as their starting left fielder in 2012, but have concerns about his health. Last season, Presley missed more than a month due to a thumb injury.


Winter Meetings begin


DALLAS — Good morning from the Hilton Anatole. It’s 8:15 a.m. CT and the Winter Meetings are beginning to get cranked up. I’ll blog as often as I can to provide updates, rumors and a bit of insight. I’ll also be Tweeting, as usual, throughout the day and into the nigtht. My Twitter handle is @BiertempfelTrib.

»»» If today was Opening Day, the Pirates’ starting rotation would consist of Kevin Correia, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and, most likely, Brad Lincoln. “We like the five we can run out there today, assuming Charlie is healthy by the time we need a fifth starter in April,” GM Neal Huntington said.

Morton is recovering from hip surgery and is not expected to be back at full strength until sometime in April. The Pirates won’t need a fifth starter until April 14 in San Francisco. If Morton’s not ready to face the Giants, then either Jeff Locke or somebody else from Triple-A Indy would be called up to make a spot start. Because of an off day, the Pirates won’t need a fifth starter again until April 24.

Although he’s an important part of the rotation, Morton will not be rushed back into action. The Pirates tried that last year with McDonald, who missed a lot of time during spring training with a sore side, started the year in the majors anyway, and was knocked around in his first few starts. “We learned a valuable lesson with James McDonald,” Huntington admitted. “We’ve got to make sure we give our guys spring training. We put James in a tough spot.”

Morton and Huntington both say the right-hander’s rehab is going fine and he’s on track to be able to pitch in April. And so, Huntington insists he didn’t come to the winter meetings dead-set on landing a starting pitcher. “We’re not looking to add a starter just to add a starter,” Huntington said. “It’s got to be somebody that we think improves our rotation. We’d like to make sure we’ve got enough depth there.”

Still, the Pirates are casting about for starters. They tried to sign lefty Chris Capuano, who would up taking a two-year, $10-million deal from the Dodgers. They also have scouted Wei-Yin Chen, Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Wada in Japan. And, as they did last summer, the Pirates could give the Astros a call about a possible trade for Wandy Rodriguez.

»»» As I wrote in Sunday’s Trib, the Pirates are not likely to re-sign first baseman Derrek Lee. But, Huntington insisted finding a first baseman is not his No. 1 offseason priority. “We’re not walking into the winter meetings with a single target,” Huntington said. “We’d like to improve our pitching, we’d like to improve our offense.”

»»» We’ve seen a few teams launch early, quick strikes in the free-agent market — the Pirates did it with Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes. But even with a new CBA in place and several players already off the board, Huntington does not expect things to be even more frantic than usual at the winter meetings. “I think it will be a pretty standard winter meetings,” he said. “Business as normal.”

»»» Last night, I asked two Pirates officials in the lobby about the team’s chances of being serious bidders for Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. Both agreed the hype around the speedy outfielder is justified. “We’ve been on him for a long time and we really like him,” one source said. “But the price is going to be too high for us.”


New CBA not Pirates-friendly


The new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which today was ratified by the players’ union executive board, is not as friendly as it could be to the Pirates. For example, capping signings in the amateur draft and international free agent market won’t do the Pirates any favors. The club will be allowed to spend $9.27 million in next year’s draft — only a bit more than half of what it spent in 2011 to sign its draft picks.

The new CBA also has outlawed minicamps, a change pushed through by the players’ union that I’m sure is very unpopular in the Pirates’ front office. The Pirates have held minicamps the past several years — a voluntary, week-long gathering that usually was held in Bradenton, Fla. Management used the camps to evaluate players’ conditioning, monitor injury rehabs and asses basic skills. The workouts usually were not very intense; just a warmup of sorts before spring training. It also was a good way to foster team building — a golf outing was always on the itinerary, and last year the players hung out together to watch the BCS championship game — and a venue to players and coaches to get to know each other.

Baseball’s economics drastically reduce the Pirates’ margin of error; it’s often impossible for them to overcome a poor roster decision, a prolonger slump by anyone or a slew of lingering injuries. Minicamp was a small step the team was able to take to try to avoid some of those pitfalls. But not any more.

»»» Today, managers were announced for the Pirates’ minor league affiliates. All the skippers return at the three highest levels — Dean Treanor at Triple-A Indy, P.J. Forbes at Double-A Altoona and Carlos Garcia at High-A Bradenton. At Low-A West Virginia, Rick Sofield replaces Gary Robinson, who moved into a scouting role. Dave Turgeon is back at short-season State College and Tom Prince returns to the rookie ball team. The two Dominican Summer League teams will be managed by Larry Sutton and Gera Alvarez. The Pirates will not field a team in the Venezuelan Summer League next year.

A few other changes: Scott Mitchell was promoted to minor league pitching coordinator. Brad Fischer, formerly an advisor, is now field coordinator. Bernie Holliday was promoted to director of mental conditioning, and will be aided by newly hired mental conditioning coordinator Tyson Holt.

»»» Jim Benedict gave up his role as pitching coordinator but will continue with the Pirates as a special assistant to GM. Benedict was pitching coordinator the past two years and last season was instrumental in right-hander Charlie Morton’s dramatic turnaround. “We can use (Benedict) in many more areas and expand his impact in his current role,” assistant GM Kyle Stark said. “He will impact our ML club, our system, and player acquisition at all levels. Scott Mitchell has shown he is ready for the pitching coordinator role. We’re excited about both guys and their impact on the organization.”