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11/19/09 12:00 AM EST

Pirates look for value in free agents

GM Huntington says club would add offense at right price

PITTSBURGH -- The pool of possibilities is about to become a free-for-all. Thursday marks the final day that teams have exclusive negotiating privileges with its own free-agent players. Then, beginning at midnight, it's fair game for all.

This winter's free-agent market is expected to be an intriguing one. It may not be the strongest the sport has seen in recent years, but the economic slowdown is certain to have play a role in how the market develops.

In Pittsburgh, that certainly raises two questions: First, will the Pirates be players in the free-agent market? And if so, to what extent will they be?

Questions about the organization's financial flexibility are probably the easiest to answer. With all the midseason trades the club made last summer, the Pirates have some money available to make a splash this offseason. General manager Neal Huntington already did that to some extent in trading for second baseman Akinori Iwamura and taking on the infielder's $4.85 million contract for 2010.

"Part of the benefit of some of the moves that we made is that we have some significant payroll flexibility," said president Frank Coonelly, who is not divulging exactly how much the Pirates have left to spend for their 2010 club. "If the right value is there, we have the money to spend."

Don't assume, though, that having more money available means that it will necessarily be spent.

"Organizations make mistakes when they spend money just to spend money," Huntington said. "We have more money to do some more things, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to throw it out there and spend it.

"It may mean that we get shut out," he added. "It may mean that we get one. It may also mean that we get two or three guys that fall into that set of criteria. But the last thing we want to do is just sign free agents to assign money."

Huntington has been hesitant to explicitly define his offseason wish list, though it's fairly easy to deduce what would be on it. The Pirates finished last in the Majors with a .241 team batting average after the All-Star break, which highlights the need of an offensive addition for 2010. Huntington did admit this much.

"We would obviously like to add offense if we can, but it's not an easy thing to add," Huntington said. "We have young players coming into their own that we don't want to backlog. Generally speaking, we'd love to increase our offense in some way, shape or form."

Where would be the best fit for an offensive acquisition? It would most likely be in right field. Sure, the Pirates have Garrett Jones ready to play in right if needed, but he could just as easily slide into the starting first baseman role. Pirates outfielder prospect Jose Tabata is unlikely to make the team out of Spring Training, and outfielder Brandon Moss did nothing in 2009 to convince management that he an everyday option moving forward.

In other words, there could be room for a short-term fit.

On the pitching end, the focus will be on relievers. While the organization won't rule out acquiring another starter, the Pirates are, for the most part, content with their starting depth as is. The bullpen is a different story.

With the recent loss of Jesse Chavez and not a single lefty currently projected to be in the 'pen, there are most definitely holes to be filled. However, while Huntington has said he will explore the midtier free-agent market a bit more aggressively than in the past, that won't be the case when examining available relievers.

Because of Huntington's steadfast belief that reliever performance is the most difficult to predict, the Pirates will not be players in the market for the top crop of free-agent relief pitchers, which this year will include Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Rafael Betancourt, John Grabow, Joe Beimel and Fernando Rodney, among others.

"Our focus is going to be more on the borderline-type guys that may not get $3-4 million or may not even get a Major League contract," Huntington said. "We've got an opportunity where we can sell a chance to come in and compete for a chance on the Major League club."

So fans craving for the Pirates to make a big splash in the free-agent market, don't get your hopes up. The big-name players aren't going to be landing in Pittsburgh. And, in fact, don't be surprised if the Pirates take a wait-and-see approach early on to gauge how steep an effect the economy is going to have on teams this offseason before the club makes its mark.

"The impact that the dollars had in the trade market and the fact that there haven't been a ton of extensions during the season shows that clubs are very concerned about their dollars this offseason, as we are," Huntington said. "The economy is real. The attendance in baseball wasn't what it was a year ago. We're not immune to that. I think it has the chance to be an interesting free-agent market. It may be like last year's market where the best players get the money and then the rest of the group is left to fend for the few dollars that are still out there."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.