PITTSBURGH -- So this is usually the part of the mailbag where I try to think of something creative or witty to say to get you reading. But as I write this, I am fighting a nasty cold which really has suppressed all creative juices I might have had working for me. Really, all I have working for me right now is a box of Kleenex and some Mucinex. Let's just hope that's enough to get through your questions ...

Explain the trade for Jason Jaramillo. I don't get it exactly. Seems Ronny Paulino, and now Jaramillo, were both best suited, especially Paulino given the MLB experience, for inclusion in a package to bring either prospects or a proven commodity. Your opinion please?
-- Jim M., Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Pirates and Paulino needed to make a clean break for the sake of both parties. Paulino didn't have a future with this organization anymore and wanted the opportunity to compete for a starting role elsewhere. Philly isn't exactly going to give him that opportunity right off, but at least it's a change of scenery.

Quite frankly, the Pirates weren't going to get a lot for Paulino alone, and it would have been hard for his stock to rise much more since I never got the impression that management considered him a serious candidate for the backup role next season. One down year hurt his stock some, but if 2009 had been much of the same, then the Pirates really would have gotten little in return.

Paulino's name may have surfaced in trade discussions for Jack Wilson if the Pirates were hoping to sell more of a package. But again, with the way Paulino digressed last season, it's hard to see him making a package deal even look much sweeter. And considering the club has a limited number of other players available in the trade market, the only guarantee of trading Paulino came by packaging him off alone.

The deal may seem like a wash considering it is essentially a swap of backup catchers. Pirates management is simply hoping that Jaramillo, who was highly regarded in the Phillies' system not long ago, can become a better backup option than they thought Paulino would have been.

I just read your recent article about how a chance at a starting job is Doug Mientkiewicz's top priority. Why don't the Pirates offer him a chance to start at third? Neil Walker and Andy LaRoche don't have the spot locked, so what's it hurt to promise Doug a fair shot at it?
-- Brian D., Bethel Park, Pa.

As much of a positive clubhouse presence as Mientkiewicz was last season, the Pirates have no intention of signing him to block the development of LaRoche or Walker. Certainly Mientkiewicz could fill in at third if necessary, but defensively and offensively, he doesn't profile as the everyday third baseman the Pirates want.

Obviously, LaRoche has a lot to prove next year after a dismal beginning in Pittsburgh, and Walker still has a checklist of things the Pirates would like him to accomplish. However, taking an objective look at the 2009 club as it stands now would suggest that this team is still at least another year away from being a contender. If that's the case, let the young guys continue to get their feet wet.

On a side note, while Mientkiewicz will surely be willing to fill in at third, it's not the starting spot he's looking for. He has expressed more of an interest in being used as a first baseman and a right fielder and would prefer to sign on with a club that would give him a chance to play either of those two positions.

With all the wheeling and dealing the Pirates will be doing this offseason, is there any indication they are looking for a prospect or Major League-ready player for the first base position, in case Adam LaRoche struggles in the first half of the season again next year?
-- Dan F., Bremerton, Wash.

An additional starting first baseman is not on the team's offseason shopping list. LaRoche is likely to earn somewhere around $7 million next season, which isn't a price tag that the club is going to pay someone to sit on the bench. They are banking heavily on the fact that LaRoche will not have the early season funk he's gone through the last two years.

While much can obviously change in a year, I don't get the indication that management sees LaRoche as the team's long-term first baseman. Not to mention, his salary is only going to continue increasing. What that means is, you're right, the Pirates do need to start looking to add depth into the system. Steve Pearce could be an option, but the farm system is fairly barren in terms of above-average prospects profiling as middle-of-the-order first basemen. That's not necessarily a priority now, but it's a looming reality that will have to be addressed soon.

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What about pitching prospect Bryan Morris, who was involved in the Manny Ramirez trade? Do the Pirates like what they see from him? Will he be a starter or reliever in the future? I know he throws hard.
-- Dustin B., Tenn.

Those who have scouted Morris and watched him pitch project him as being a mid-to-upper rotation starter down the road. As much initial disappointment as there was in watching the other three pieces of that trade -- Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Andy LaRoche -- struggle with the Pirates right off, Morris could very well be the best piece to come out of that deal.

Morris has a fastball in the mid-90s and a power breaking ball and is probably one of the best pitching prospects the Pirates now have in their farm system. He'll likely start the year at Class A Lynchburg and will continue to be groomed as a starter.

Jenifer, usually by now there have been some Minor League free agents that the Pirates have signed to fill in some holes. I have not seen any of those yet this year. Also, any word on when the Pirates will name a Triple-A manager for Indianapolis?
-- Dave B., Zionsville, Ill.

Here are the team's Minor League free-agent signings as of Sunday: RHP Brian Slocum, LHP Daniel Haigwood, OF Yohan Silva, OF Maiko Loyola, SS Ashley Ponce, LHP Julio Denis, SS Jorge Bishop. Of that group, Haigwood and Slocum have been invited to Major League camp.

The Pirates still have not named a replacement for Trent Jewett in Indy.

I noticed that Andrew McCutchen is not on the Pirates 40-man roster. Does this mean he is not protected for the Rule 5 Draft?
-- Rick O., Delray Beach, Fla.

Since the Rule 5 Draft is over, obviously McCutchen was protected and therefore not selected. However, since I wasn't able to answer this question before the Draft, I figured I would clarify now.

The rules on who is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft changed in 2006 and have given teams an extra year to keep players without having to protect them on the team's 40-man roster. Players who were drafted or signed when they were 18 or younger are protected for four years, while players that were 19 or older when they were drafted, are eligible for the Draft after three Minor League seasons.

McCutchen was only 18 when he was drafted in 2005, so that gives him until the 2009 Rule 5 Draft before he would become eligible to be taken. But no worries there -- McCutchen will be put on the 40-man roster well before then since he is expected to make his Major League debut at some point next year.