DALLAS -- Speaking on Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, general manager Neal Huntington reaffirmed that the Pirates intend to open the season with Pedro Alvarez as their starting third baseman. That decision, however, has not precluded the organization from continuing to consider contingency plans in case Alvarez endures a repeat of his 2011 season.
"We're committed to Pedro as long as he's committed to doing what he needs to do," Huntington said. "The reality is that he has the ability to be a great player. We have to work hard to help him achieve that ceiling and achieve that potential. But at the same time, we have a business to run and we have to protect ourselves against the downside."
The Pirates have maintained close contact with Alvarez in an effort to monitor his offseason strength-and-conditioning work. Huntington described Alvarez's conditioning plan as "structured," and the Pirates have also kept in touch with Alvarez's personal trainer. Alvarez's work has not -- and likely will not -- include any stint in winter ball.
"He's worked hard this offseason in the strength-and-conditioning program," Huntington said. "Our initial reports are he is in good shape and ready to come in and show everyone what he is capable of next year. We're fairly confident that he is doing what he needs to be doing right now."
The Pirates' contingency plan could center around internal pieces, or involve the Pirates making an addition before next season. Internally, Chase d'Arnaud and Josh Harrison would be the most obvious candidates to take Alvarez's playing time if he stumbles.
Alvarez is coming off a season in which he hit just .191 with four homers in 74 games. He also spent time on the disabled list with a quadriceps injury and was twice demoted to Triple-A.
Lee waiting on market to come to him
DALLAS -- The Pirates do not expect first baseman Derrek Lee to negotiate his next contract until after the top two free-agent first basemen -- Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder -- solidify theirs. With that as an expectation, it then seems unlikely that Lee would accept the Pirates' arbitration offer.
The deadline for Type A and B free agents (Lee falls in the Type B category) to accept or reject an arbitration offer is midnight on Wednesday, and it does not appear likely that Pujols and Fielder will both have their futures resolved by then.
Lee would be wise to wait until after Pujols and Fielder land, as that could open up a bigger market for the 36-year-old veteran. He hit just .246 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs while earning $7.25 million in 2011. However, Lee did end the year with a .337 average after being traded to Pittsburgh at the July non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The Pirates have maintained their interest in Lee since the season ended and are under the impression that Lee will return to the Majors in 2012. That latter point is newsworthy, as Lee did leave open the possibility of retirement when asked to discuss his future in late September.
"The intention that we've gotten is yes, he intends to play next year, but [for] the right fit and the right opportunity," said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who also confirmed that the Pirates will not stop pursuing Lee if he rejects their arbitration offer.
Though first base would seem the most obvious position for the Pirates to upgrade, Huntington did not characterize that as a must. He noted the club does have internal candidates to fill that hole, though it's debatable whether those options would provide the offensive punch the Pirates seemingly need.
Those internal candidates include Garrett Jones, Matt Hague and non-roster invitees Nick Evans and Jake Fox.
Of course, the Pirates might be left little choice but to go with some combination of these four players, given the limited number of available free-agent first basemen.
"We've got some holes we're looking to fill, but we don't feel like we desperately have to do anything," Huntington said. "That's a pretty good spot to be in. If we can upgrade? Outstanding. Upgrade at an appropriate acquisition cost, even better."
Pirates' attention on adding rotation depth
DALLAS -- Though the Pirates were involved in few rumors and no actual activity on Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, internal discussions on how to improve the 72-win club continued in earnest. And those discussions specifically surround pitching.
General manager Neal Huntington said that the club is not desperate to fill any specific hole this winter, though that's not an indication that the Pirates are content. As it concerns the rotation, there is absolutely room for improvement.
Gone is lefty Paul Maholm, a regular and reliable presence in the rotation since 2006. The Pirates are also forced to consider the possibility of opening the season without Charlie Morton, who underwent hip surgery in October. Kevin Correia, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens are starting locks. But the rest of the rotation is fluid.
If the Pirates are going to improve their starting pitching depth, they're likely to do so without making a splash signing. That means looking beyond free agents C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle and likely finding a much less expensive veteran to add to the mix.
"Our best upgrades may be depth," Huntington said. "It might be adding depth options to our pitching staff rather than piling it into one big spot and hoping we have enough depth internally."
A rotation that includes Correia, McDonald, Karstens and Morton is also an all-righty one. Would that suggest that the Pirates' current pursuits are focused on left-handed options? Not necessarily.
"We're comfortable if our five starters are right-handed," Huntington said. "If there is a left-handed starter out there that fits for us, our ballpark is definitely beneficial for left-handed starters. If there is somebody out there, absolutely we'll look. But it won't be a situation where we pursue a left-handed starter just to get a left-handed starter."
Lefty Jeff Locke is one internal pitcher who could make a push for an Opening Day rotation spot, depending on what the Pirates do over the next few months. Right-hander Brad Lincoln is also a candidate to compete for a starting job next spring.
General manager Neal Huntington confirmed that the Pirates are exploring the outfield market, if for nothing more than to improve the team's depth in that area. The club is also not yet set on making Alex Presley the starting left fielder, leaving open the possibility of finding an upgrade before Spring Training. If nothing else, the Pirates could use a dependable fourth outfielder to join Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. Huntington would not speculate on the possibility of trading closer Joel Hanrahan, though he did reiterate the reality that no one in the organization is completely off limits in a trade discussion. "Nobody is untouchable," Huntington said. "We're just not in the scenario where we can do that. But there are some guys that are much tougher than others. If it makes sense for the organization, it's something we have to consider. I'd be negligent in my job if I didn't." Huntington said the club has not yet decided whether it will clear a spot on the 40-man roster in order to select a player in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. The Pirates have until Wednesday to make that roster move.
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.