Free-agent SP: Low-cost options

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Perhaps the Pirates can convince Kevin Milwood to put off retirement for one more year.
Perhaps the Pirates can convince Kevin Milwood to put off retirement for one more year.

The Pirates are shopping for a starting pitcher, but, with RHP A.J. Burnett and LHP Wandy Rodriguez already in the mix, the club does not need a top-of-the-rotation guy — which is a good thing, because the team cannot afford one, anyway. GM Neal Huntington will go after someone to fill either the 3, 4 or 5 spot, preferably a veteran arm who can be counted upon to eat some innings.

RHP Kevin Correia is a free agent, and management has given no indication it will try to bring him back. RHP Charlie Morton is out until at least July as he recovers from elbow surgery, and might be non-tendered. Even if RHP Jeff Karstens, who’s in his last year of arbitration eligibility, is tendered a contract, the Pirates will want to bring in a free agent to provide injury insurance and competition in spring training camp. Despite his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance in 2012, RHP James McDonald is in the plans for the rotation next season. Rookies Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson are minimum-wage options. Of the two newbies, McPherson was more impressive during the September auditions.

Free agents can begin signing with other clubs after midnight Friday. Options for the Pirates, considering the team’s needs and budget constraints, include:

RHP Kevin Milwood: Turns 38 years old Dec. 24 … $1 million in 2012 with Mariners … Went 6-12 with 4.25 ERA and 1.391 WHIP in 28 starts (161 innings). Verdict: He was a bargain this year for Seattle. He’s mulling retirement, but Pirates might be able to tempt him with offer.

RHP Tim Stauffer: 30 years old … $3.2 million in 2012 with Padres … Pitched in just one game in majors before having season-ending surgery on flexor tendon in right elbow. Verdict: Worth a gamble. If healthy, he should get a decent number of offers.

RHP Chris Young: 33 years old … $1.1 million in 2012 with Mets … 4-9 with 4.15 ERA and 1.348 WHIP in 20 starts (115 innings). Verdict: Pirates have liked him for a while. Maybe this is year they finally get him.

RHP Carlos Villanueva: Turns 29 years old Nov. 28 … $2.28 million in 2012 with Blue Jays … 7-7 with 4.16 ERA and 1.269 WHIP in 38 games (16 starts). Verdict: Wants a multi-year deal and assurance he’ll be a full-time starter. That’s what Correia got two years ago, and you saw how that worked out.

LHP Jeff Francis: Turns 32 years old Jan. 8 … $2 million in 2012 with Royals … 6-7 with 5.58 ERA and 1.478 WHIP in 24 games (113 innings). Verdict: Could be reunited with Clint Hurdle, who was his skipper with Rockies from 2004 to 2009.

RHP Bartolo Colon: 39 years old … $2 million in 2012 with A’s … 10-9 with 3.43 ERA and 1.208 WHIP in 24 starts (152.1 innings). Verdict: It looks like he’s still got some gas in the tank, but Pirates’ also-ran outlook hurts their chances.

RHP Randy Wells: 30 years old … $2.7 million in 2010 with Cubs … 1-2 with 5.34 ERA and 2.058 WHIP in 12 games (four starts) … Was super (12-10, 3.05 ERA) as rookie in 2009, but has gone 16-22 with 4.62 ERA in 67 games since. Verdict: Recent struggles will reduce his cost, but do Pirates really want another big question mark (a la J-Mac) in their rotation?

RHP Freddy Garcia: 36 years old … $4 million in 2012 with Yankees … 7-6 with 5.20 ERA and 1.370 WHIP in 30 games (17 starts). Verdict: Doesn’t seem to be much upside left.

RHP Rich Harden: Turns 31 years old Nov. 30 … $1.5 million in 2012 with A’s … 4-4 with 5.12 ERA and 1.427 WHIP in 15 games. Verdict: Still has good strikeout stuff, but batted balls are finding holes more often these days.

LHP Francisco Liriano: 29 years old … $5.5 million in 2012 with Twins/White Sox … 6-12 with 5.34 ERA and 1.468 WHIP in 34 games (28 starts). Verdict: Probably too costly for the Pirates.

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Free-agent catchers: No much there

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When the World Series ended, the clock began ticking on the 72-hour countdown to the deadline for teams to exercise players’ contract options. The Pirates certainly will pick up Pedro Alvarez’s $700,000 option for 2013, and it’s almost a sure thing they will not activate Rod Barajas’ $3.5 million, no-buyout option.

At the end of the season, the Pirates’ payroll was $61.375 million. Next year’s figure will be higher, but that doesn’t mean a free-agent spending spree is about to happen on the North Shore. The combined salaries of Alvarez and six players who are already under contract for 2013 — A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Andrew McCutchen, Clint Barmes and Jose Tabata — will account for $27.7 million. Re-signing a handful of the team’s eight arbitration-eligible players will require around $20 million. That doesn’t leave a lot of cash for the free-agent market.

With Barajas about to be cut loose, the Pirates must come up with another catcher this offseason. Michael McKenry will be back (and isn’t arby eligible until 2015), but there are doubts about his ability to be an everyday catcher. Tony Sanchez, a first-round pick in 2009, will be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but probably needs a bit more time in Triple-A. GM Neal Huntington certainly will try to acquire a big league-ready catcher if he trades closer Joel Hanrahan over the winter. As for the free-agent crop, the pickings are slim (as they were a year ago). Some possible targets for the Pirates:

Gerald Laird: Turns 33 on Nov. 13 … Made $1 million in 2012 … Hit .282 with a .710 OPS … Over the past three seasons, he’s played in a total of 189 games. Verdict — Too risky.

A.J. Pierzynski: Turns 36 on Dec. 30 … Made $6 million in 2012 … Played in 135 games (121 at catcher) and hit .278 with .827 OPS … Threw out 26 percent of base-stealers (27 of 103). Verdict — Can still do a good job, but likely will be too costly for Pirates.

Yorvit Torrealba: 34 years old … Made $3.25 million in 2012 … Hit .227 with .623 OPS in 64 games … Caught 53 games and threw out 22 percent of base-stealers (10 of 45). Verdict — Price tag would have to come way down.

Kelly Shoppach: 33 years old … Made $1.135 million in 2012 … Played in 76 games and hit .233 with 7.33 OPS. Threw out 33 percent of base-stealers (16 of 48) … Has played in 100-plus games only once in his eight-year career. Verdict: Worth a look if price stays steady.

Humberto Quintero: 33 years old … Made $1 million in 2012 … Played in 43 games (40 at catcher) and hit .232 with .598 OPS … Threw out 35 percent of base-stealers (17 of 49) … Has never started more than 74 games at catcher in 10 seasons in majors. Verdict: Perhaps a bargain-basement pickup if unsigned at end of January.

Miguel Olivio: 34 years old … Seattle declined his $3 million option for 2013 … Played in 87 games and hit .222 with .620 OPS … Threw out 31 percent of base-stealers (21 of 68). Verdict: Would be a defensive upgrade, but not much with the bat.

For comparison’s sake, here’s the take this season on Barajas: 37 years old … made $4 million … Played in 104 games (98 at catcher) and hit .206 with .625 OPS … Threw out 6 percent of base-stealers (6 of 99).

»»» McCutchen, Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn are the three finalists for the Gold Glove Award for NL center fielders. The winner will be announced at 9 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2. All three players had a 0.0 wins above replacement, according to Elias. A few other stats to chew on:

Fielding percentage: McCutchen .997, Bourn .995, Stubbs .982

Chances: Bourn 388, McCutchen 371, Stubbs 282

Errors: McCutchen 1, Bourn 2, Stubbs 5

Putouts: Bourn 383. McCutchen 367, Stubbs 272

Assists: Stubbs 5, McCutchen 3, Bourn 3

Range factor (putouts plus assists divided by nine innings): Bourn 2.59, McCutchen 2.44, Stubbs 2.25

Innings played: McCutchen 1,364; Bourn 1,340; Stubbs 1,107

»»» SS Gustavo Nunez, whom the Pirates got last year in the Rule 5 draft, was claimed off waivers by the D’backs. Nunez spent the season recovering from a foot injury and never appeared in a game for the Pirates.

»»» The Pirates have scouted pitcher Shohei Otani, an 18-year-old righty who wants to bypass the Japanese leagues and go straight to the American major leagues. Otani would be subject to MLB’s new caps on international signings, which should reduce the chances for an all-out bidding war. Industry sources I’ve spoken with say that means Otani’s decision could be influenced mostly by other factors — cultural, a team’s chance of winning, etc. In that regard, the Pirates are a long-shot to get Otani. Pittsburgh simply is not a lure for Asian players.

»»» I was never a fan of having one wild-card playoff team per league, so you can safely assume how I feel about the two-wild card system. I’m not the only one who takes an old-school approach to the postseason. Here’s what Chipper Jones told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the Braves and Cards hooked up in their wild-card game: “Quite honestly, I think if we’re going to continue to let teams in year after year, we might as well just say, ‘Screw it.’ Let’s have everybody in. Let’s play 162 games to seed yourselves and then we’ll let the Astros have a shot at it and whoever else wants a shot at it. Six- or seven- game winning streak and you’re the world (champions). We’ll just have a 32-team, single elimination March Madness tournament. That’s the way I think we ought to do it.”

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McCutchen unanimous choice for team MVP

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The Pittsburgh chapter of the Base Ball Writers of America has voted Andrew McCutchen the Pirates’ most valuable player and A.J. Burnett the team’s outstanding pitcher for the 2012 season. McCutchen was a unanimous choice by the chapter’s 10 voting members. The Chuck Tanner Award, which recognizes the player who is most cooperative and helpful with the media, was won by Jason Grilli. Garrett Jones was voted the team’s “unsung hero,” for reliable, consistent achievement.

»»» McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are the finalists for player of the year at the annual Players Choice Awards. McCutchen also is a finalist for National League most outstanding player. The winners will be announced at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 on MLB Network.

»»» The Pirates added RHPs Victor Black and Kyle Kaminska to their list of players going to the Arizona Fall League. They will join RHPs Brandon Cumpton and Tyler Waldron, INFs Matt Curry and Gift Negoepe and OF Adalberto Santos on the Scottsdale Scorpions roster. The AFL season opens Tuesday.

»»» Baseball America has begun releasing its lists of top 20 prospects at each level of the minor leagues. The Pirates have four players among the Gulf Coast League (rookie ball) picks: C Wyatt Mathisen (No. 5), 2B Dilson Herrera (No. 7), RHP Tyler Glasnow (No. 9) and C Jin-De Jhang (No. 19). Three State College players are on the short-season New York-Penn League list: RHP Luis Heredia (No. 2), OF Barrett Barnes (No. 10) and RHP Clay Holmes (No. 15).

Game 162: Braves @ Pirates, 12:35 p.m. ET

Braves (93-68): 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Martin Prado lf, 3. Jason Heyward rf, 4. Freddie Freeman 1b, 5. Dan Uggla 2b, 6. Brian McCann c, 7. Juan Francisco 3b, 8. Andrelton Simmons ss, 9. Ben Sheets rhp (4-4, 3.54)

Pirates (79-82): 1. Alex Presley rf, 2. Josh Harrison 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones 1b , 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Travis Snider rf, 7. Clint Barmes ss, 8. Rod Barajas c, 9. A.J. Burnett rhp (16-9, 3.43)

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Hughes notches 2nd save

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Jared Hughes — not closer Joel Hanrahan, who had pitched in each of the previous two games — worked the ninth inning with his second career save on the line. “We knew that (Jason) Grilli and Hanrahan were down,” Hughes said. “The phone rang, they said my name and I was ready.” Manager Clint Hurdle said Hanrahan’s absence was designed to keep Hanny fresh and had nothing to do with his rocky outing the day before. Sunday, Hanrahan gave up two runs in the ninth against the Cincinnati Reds. It was the first time in 71 games this season the Pirates lost when leading after eight innings. Hughes sprinted to the mound, knowing his first batter would be Chipper Jones. Hughes retired the future Hall of Famer on a routine grounder. “It was really neat, because I grew up watching him play,” Hughes said. “I stuck with my strengths, because he can hit just about anything. He’s a great hitter and I was happy to get a chance to face him.” Freddie Freeman reached first base on Pedro Alvarez’s throwing error. Pinch-hitter Lyle Overbay flew out and Brian McCann grounded out to end it.

Game 161: Reds @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

Braves (93-67):  1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Tyler Pastornicky 2b, 3. Andrelton Simmons ss, 4. Lyle Overbay 1b, 5. David Ross c, 6. Ben Francisco 3b, 7. Jeff Baker rf, 8. Jose Constanza lf, 9. Tommy Hanson rhp (13-9, 4.38)

Pirates (78-82): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Alex Presley rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones 1b , 5. Michael McKenry c, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Josh Harrison 2b, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Kevin Correia rhp (11-11, 4.33)

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Jones to be feted in pregame ceremony

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The Pirates will retire Chipper Jones tonight in a pregame ceremony, but the team has not yet said what that will entail. Jones will retire after the Braves’ playoff run and figures to be a sure Hall of Famer. “He has made a difference in the game. He obviously has made a difference in that organization,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who first saw Jones play a few eons ago in the Florida Instructional League. “One of the premier switch-hitters of all time. He has done the game well and the game has done him well. It’s been a good relationship.”

»»» Since the All-Star break, Andrew McCutchen ranks sixth in jersey sales, according to sales figures released by MLB. The top five are Derek Jeter, Josh Hamilton, Ichiro Suzuki, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

»»» If you haven’t already, check out this fine feature about Nate McLouth, which was written by my good friend Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun. Ryan Doumit told Connolly that McLouth was “blindsided” by the trade that sent McLouth to Atlanta in 2009.”He loved Pittsburgh and he was under the impression he’d be there long-term, or at least the next three years. I don’t think he ever really got over that,” Doumit said. “It was a face-of-the-team deal for him and then he goes to Atlanta and he’s just another guy on that team. He certainly wasn’t the same type of player in Atlanta that we saw in Pittsburgh.”

Game 160: Braves @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

Braves (93-66): 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Martin Prado lf, 3. Jason Heyward rf, 4. Chipper Jones 3b, 5. Freddy Freeman 1b, 6. Dan Uggla 2b, 7. Brian McCann c, 8. Andrelton Simmons ss, 9. Paul Maholm lhp (13-10, 3.71)

Pirates (77-82): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Gaby Sanchez 1b , 5. Michael McKenry c, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Jose Tabata rf, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Jeff Locke lhp (0-3, 6.35)

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