Same old Pirates? Or smart, frugal Pirates?


SOUTH HILLS – What we’ve learned about the Pirates’ 2013-14 approach to free agency  to date this offseason is that the club is again seeking value targets. It you had dreams about a high-profile, big-money signing that seems unlikely.


We were told last week the Pirates were seeking low-risk, high-upside starters and this week we learned they were finalists for such a target in Josh Johnson, who signed a one-year $8 million deal with the Padres on Tuesday.


Today I reported the Pirates had inquired about first baseman Lance Berkman, who is coming off two injury plagued seasons and will be 38 in February. The Pirates were/are likely considering Berkman as a potential platoon partner – .301 career hitter from left side – or a bench bat. The Pirates might again be looking to trim costs on the corners by employing platoons to open 2014.

It’s true that the Pirates’ attendance was up. It’s true every major league team is enjoying $25 million more in national TV dollars in 2014. The Pirates have more money to spend.


But to date they’ve been unwilling to spend it on free agents and they have not been connected to any players commanding a multi-year, significant-dollar contract. The Pirates appear to again be chasing low-risk, upside. There’s probably not going to be a free-agent splash signing.


I’ve heard this refrain from the some fans: “Same old Pirates.”


Meaning same old spendthrift Pirates.


We’ll have to see how the entire offseason plays out but it should be no surprise that the Pirates are not major players in free agency. The Pirates will likely never be given their market size. The core Pirates players will almost always be homegrown. GM Neal Huntington said this just weeks ago.


But remember the Pirates’ financial commitment in amateur spending ranks among the top in the game.


The Pirates spent an MLB best $51 million on the 2008-12 drafts. They opened a new $5 Latin American Academy in 2009, and made a club record international commitment of $2.6 million to Luis Heredia. The Pirates have spent some $70 million on amateur bonuses and infrastructure since 2008.


Still, are the Pirates being too frugal  in free agency — they are entering a window of competitiveness — or are they just being smart? Remember free agency is becoming increasingly inefficient and incredibly more expensive.


And what the Pirates really need – power and run production from the right-side corner positions – is really expensive and in short supply in free agency.


What’s clear this offseason — and where the game has been trending — is that it’s hard to find power. Power has become rarer, power is at a premium.


That’s one reason why the Rangers were willing to trade for Prince Fielder and take to take on $148 million he is owed through 2020. There’s relatively few impact first baseman in the game right now. The Rangers are probably pretty concerned about what Fielder will be at 36 and 27 years old. But they are more concerned with adding power in the short term.


When you look at the free agent market, Robinson Cano is seeking $300 million. Nice money, if you can get it. Kendrys Morales, who few think of as an impact bat, received a $14.1 million qualifying offer and his agent is Scott Boras. (I can’t see the Pirate going there). Even though Corey Hart is coming off issues with both knees he has a number of suitors, though he did not list the Pirates among them when speaking with XM Radio earlier this week. Michael Morse is also out there, though I don’t know if the Pirates have any interest.


For the Pirates, right field is less of a long-term concern as we’ve discussed here before. The Pirates are loaded with outfield prospects. The team could open with a Jose Tabata/Andrew Lambo platoon until Gregory Polanco is ready to help in the second half. Perhaps that’s the plan there. There’s certainly no need to give anyone a lucrative long-term deal there.


But first base is the more pressing void.


Garrett Jones’ performance is in decline and he might not be tendered. Gaby Sanchez fits as a platoon player but not an ideal every day option. Justin Morneau is a free agent and is not expected back and there’s little first base talent in the minor league pipeline.


The Pirates need more production from first base. But if they’re going to find it it might have to be via trade not a signing.