PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates are parting ways with Zach Duke, Andy LaRoche and Delwyn Young, as all three were designated for assignment on Friday to open space on the 40-man roster for the additions of five young players in advance of the Rule 5 Draft.
By adding pitchers Tony Watson, Daniel Moskos, Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke and Michael Crotta, the Pirates' 40-man roster is now full.
Duke, LaRoche and Young were all arbitration-eligible this winter, but by Friday, the team had already decided it was not going to tender any of the three a contract by the Dec. 2 deadline.
If the Pirates had gone through that arbitration process, Duke, who made $4.3 million this past season, would likely have been due about $5 million in 2011. LaRoche and Young would have earned raises, too, though their salaries would have still been under $1 million.
The Pirates do now have a window during which they try and trade any of these three players, though it's unlikely any deal will come to fruition. Assuming no trade is made, each player can then become a free agent.
General manager Neal Huntington confirmed that the Pirates did try to negotiate a contract with Duke and that they explored trade possibilities for the left-hander before coming to this decision. By not coming to an agreement with the Pirates, Duke gives himself the ability to test his value on the free agent market.
Though Duke will be a free agent in a market thin in starting pitching talent, the degree of interest in the 27-year-old left-hander is questionable.
Industry sources confirmed that in the Pirates' attempts to trade Duke this offseason, none of the other 29 teams showed any interest. The sources said there was also no interest in Duke at the Trade Deadline and that no one asked about the cost of acquiring the left-hander last offseason either. Interest in Duke at the 2009 Trade Deadline, which came on the heels of Duke's strong first half and an All-Star invitation, was minimal at best, the sources added.
Huntington said that while the Pirates considered how challenging it might be to upgrade their starting pitching via free agency this winter, the money saved by not re-signing Duke could be used to help land another player.
"We know that it's not going to be easy to find a quality upgrade, and we know it's going to be a challenge to find a guy who can pitch 180 innings," Huntington said. "We plan to reinvest the money that was supposed to go to Zach Duke into the club, but we'll take the same logical approach into signing a free agent as we did in deciding not to tender him a contract. Just as we made our decision not to offer a contract to Zach Duke, we'll only spend that money if it is on the right player at the right price."
Duke's departure ends a tenure that began when he was selected by Pittsburgh in the 20th round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. After bursting onto the Major League scene with an 8-2 record and 1.81 ERA in 14 starts in 2005, Duke never lived up to the hype.
He ends his career with the Pirates having gone 45-70 with a 4.54 ERA in 160 games (159 starts). He went 8-15 with a 5.72 ERA in 2010.
"I am truly thankful for the opportunity the Pirates have given me and genuinely enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh," Duke said in a statement released by the team. "I understand this business decision and wish the Pirates and my friends still on the team the best of luck in the future."
When the Pirates acquired LaRoche as part of the Jason Bay trade at the 2008 Trade Deadline, they envisioned the third baseman as a long-time piece in the organization. It didn't pan out that way.
LaRoche struggled through those final two months of the '08 season and never found his footing as the everyday third baseman in 2009. He was relegated to a bench role this year after Pedro Alvarez joined the club in mid-June. LaRoche labored in a pinch-hitting role, finishing with just five hits in 38 at-bats. In 301 games with the Pirates, LaRoche batted .224.
If LaRoche had remained with the Pirates in 2011, it would have been as a bench player.
"[It was] another difficult [decision] because Andy is a talented player," Huntington said. "For whatever reason, it just hasn't clicked here in Pittsburgh. In Andy's case, I really believe he's going to land on his feet somewhere and become a productive Major League player."
Ironically, LaRoche's removal from the roster comes on the same day that the Phillies announced they had signed Brandon Moss, another player acquired in the Bay trade, to a Minor League contract. Moss was designated for assignment earlier this month.
Young was asset off the bench for the Pirates, but offered little other value to the team, which believes that it can find other capable bench players internally and externally to make up for losing Young. In two seasons with the Pirates, Young hit .262 off the bench and .254 as a starter.
The Pirates' list of arbitration-eligible players is now down to five after these roster moves. Huntington said at this time the club does intend to tender contracts to Ronny Cedeno, Joel Hanrahan, Jeff Karstens, Lastings Milledge and Ross Ohlendorf.
While the subtractions will garner the headlines, the additions made to the Pirates' roster were notable in their own way, too. By adding those five players, the Pirates have protected them from being taken in December's Rule 5 Draft. There was a midnight ET deadline on Friday to make such additions.
With his 2010 season, Locke has emerged as one of the organization's best left-handed pitchers. In 27 starts combined between High-A and Double-A last year, Locke went 12-5 with a 3.56 ERA. He struck out 139 and walked just 26 in 144 innings.
Watson, Crotta and Moskos were all pitchers that the Pirates feared could be plucked in the Draft and had a legitimate chance to stick on another team's Major League roster all season. Instead of taking that risk, all three will come into Spring Training competing for a spot in the Pirates' bullpen, Huntington said.
"Tony Watson brings versatility and brings quality stuff and is a guy that is not far away from helping a Major League team," Huntington said. "With Daniel Moskos, it's hard to find left-hander with a 90-96 mph fastball and power slider. Given his stuff, we felt he would be a valuable commodity out on the market. We want to see how he can continue to develop."
As for Crotta, his strong sinker would have likely intrigued other clubs. Crotta spent most of 2010 in Triple-A and is the closest of this bunch to be ready to contribute in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates see McPherson as having a legitimate chance of being a Major League starter, though he is the furthest away from the Majors in this group. In 26 appearances (21 starts) at low-A West Virginia in 2010, McPherson finished 9-9 with a 3.59 ERA. He had 124 strikeouts in 117 2/3 innings.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.