Bucs will be active in free agency
Not looking to break the bank, GM Huntington eyeing right fit
PITTSBURGH -- Pirates general manager Neal Huntington finds himself examining the free-agent market while looking to balance the future with the present.
"The reality is we're just trying to acquire talent and deepen the talent level in the organization. That's our main goal," Huntington said in a discussion about the club's potential interest in free agents. "As we are looking at the 2009 Pirates, we'd love to upgrade the offense, upgrade our pitching and rebuild the bench. But ultimately, our focus is on acquiring talent."
So there you have it -- a blueprint of Huntington's focus as the free-agency period looms. After Nov. 13, the free-agent frenzy begins in earnest, with players free to discuss financial terms with any club. Huntington emphasized that he expects the Pirates to be players in the market, but cautioned that it will be to a limited extent.
When examining the prospective activity of the Pirates in the free-agent market, two things should be made clear. The club will not be in the mix for the big-name free agents, due to financial restraints and a different organizational philosophy. And don't expect the club to be busy in the market initially.
"We're not going to play on the first tier [of players] and the first tier is going to establish the market," Huntington said. "We are in touch with a number of players that we are interested in, but much of their decisions will come after that market is set. We're not going to set the market at any rate."
But while the Pirates may not be setting the market, they still hope to be involved in it. Aside from acquiring more depth for the system, the Pirates do have specific needs that could be addressed through free-agent acquisitions.
The most pressing of those would be the addition of another offensive threat. It became quite evident how deflating the losses of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were to the offense late in the year, and that middle-of-the-order presence -- specifically from the right-handed side -- is something that the Pirates could benefit from adding.
Huntington said the club has not determined a specific position to upgrade, though a third baseman or an outfielder would seem to be the best short-term fit as the Pirates wait for certain top prospects to ascend to Pittsburgh. And if the team does indeed decide to deal shortstop Jack Wilson, acquiring a replacement would also become a priority.
Then there's the pitching staff, which, though full of potential starters, still carries plenty of room for improvement. At the same time, the bullpen could certainly use greater depth.
"It would be nice to add a veteran presence somewhere on the staff -- but not at all cost," Huntington said. "We feel good about our depth, but we always want to get better."
Again, the free-agent market could provide the solution, but the Pirates have no plans to limit the search to just free agents. They plan to listen to trade proposals, and they will continue to scour the waiver wire for potential fits as well.
Huntington maintained his stance of not citing particular free-agent targets, though he did emphasize that the organization is in discussions with numerous players and agents.
"I think in a perfect world, we're looking for someone who would be here for more than one year," Huntington said. "But if there is a short-term fit that would not block a younger player, we wouldn't be opposed to signing someone for one year."
And then there is the priority of reassembling the bench, which could be completely depleted considering all four of the '08 Pirates who declared free agency were primary bench players last season.
The organization continues to publicize its desire to bring two of those players -- Jason Michaels and Doug Mientkiewicz -- back for another season. The reality, however, is that both are going to seek the opportunity for more playing time and a higher salary elsewhere before committing to a return to Pittsburgh.
"Basically, the conversations we've had with them is to go explore the market and see what's out there," Huntington said. "As soon as they know what's out there, then they can come back to us and we can begin to talk in more financial terms."
Last season, Michaels earned $2.15 million, while Mientkiewicz turned the Minor League free-agent contract he signed shortly before Spring Training into a $750,000 yearly salary.
So with the needs identified, the biggest question becomes the amount of money the Pirates are willing to spend to fill those holes. The organization has just over $30 million in guaranteed contracts for 2009, though that does not include what will be substantial raises for a number of first-time arbitration eligible players.
Still, as it stands, those increases in salaries are unlikely to push the Pirates over last season's payroll, which suggests that the organization could realistically have about $10 million to spend. Whether they will, however, is uncertain.
"It's not something that we're going to broadcast, but we have quality financial flexibility," Huntington said. "If a guy is out there via a trade or free agency and we think that they would be the right fit here, we have the money to be able to offer."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.