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11/29/11 12:01 AM EST
Pirates head to Meetings with agenda honed
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- Because the organization has already been aggressive in the free-agent market, the Pirates will head to next week's Winter Meetings with a narrowly focused list of needs.
Completed are the tasks of finding a new starting catcher as well as a shortstop to replace Ronny Cedeno. Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes, respectively, now occupy those roles. As a result, the pursuit of a first baseman and the search for potential upgrades to the rotation can take full precedent.
Front-office members, team employees, agents and media will descend upon Dallas' Hilton Anatole Hotel from Dec. 5-8 for the annual Winter Meetings. While the elite free agents -- a list headlined by Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson -- will dominate the headlines that emerge next week, the Pirates have plenty to accomplish, even if under the radar.
The club's top priority is finding a first baseman, as the Pirates' only current internal options are Garrett Jones and Matt Hague. There would be significant risk going into 2012 with either as the team's everyday option. Jones has never hit well against left-handed pitching. Hague, on the other hand, has yet to make his Major League debut.
"Is there any upgrade available? That's what we have to explore," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We do have some internal options, so it's not like we are desperate and have to overpay a free agent or overpay in a trade to fill it."
Derrek Lee remains atop the Pirates' wish list, though that's not to say that the idea of a reunion is mutual. Lee is considering his options, and he may wait until Pujols and Fielder sign before settling on his next contract. Lee could end up being a backup option for teams that miss out on either of those big-name free agents.
The Pirates did offer Lee, a Type B free agent, arbitration, giving Lee the option of having a one-year deal worked out for him through the arbitration process. The deadline for Lee to accept or reject the offer is midnight ET on Dec. 7. That means the Pirates aren't likely to sign another first baseman until Lee makes that decision, so as to ensure that they don't end up with two first basemen.
If Pittsburgh is unable to lure Lee, the crop of other available first basemen is thin. Aside from Pujols and Fielder, the list also includes Casey Kotchman and Carlos Pena.
If the free-agent options aren't all that appealing, the Pirates could attempt to snag a first baseman via a trade. Given how imperative it is for the Pirates to improve their offense, they need to make a splash with whomever receives the first-base job.
While first base remains the most significant hole to fill, the Pirates continue to see what is available on the pitching side, too. The club has lost Paul Maholm to free agency and is facing the prospect of beginning the year with Charlie Morton still recovering from hip surgery.
Because their starting pitching is not especially strong in experience, the Pirates could use some fortification. There is always the possibility that they circle back to Maholm, if the left-hander does not find a more appealing option elsewhere.
Fortifying the bench and the bullpen remains a priority, though the Pirates have enough internal options in both of these areas to avoid allocating significant money in either direction.
When it comes to money, the Pirates have plenty left to spend. The club has already added $9 million to its 2012 payroll with the Barajas and Barmes signings. However, the team also took more than $25 million off the books for 2012 by declining four player options.
While the Pirates do not release a target payroll figure, it is safe to assume that they have the ability to exceed an Opening Day payroll of $50 million if they find players they are comfortable spending on.
The team will also need to account for natural salary bumps in arbitration for players like Joel Hanrahan, Jeff Karstens and Morton, but there is still the flexibility to be aggressive in the free-agent market. That's going to be especially necessary as the club looks to improve upon a season in which its offense was one of the lowest performing in the league.
"We've got to find a way to improve the offense," Huntington said. "Is it the development of our internal guys? Yes. Is it looking to add from the outside? Yes. We made some strides in certain areas and we didn't in others. We're going to have to find most of our answers internally, but if there is a spot where we can add to this club externally then we're certainly going to have to be aggressive. We've got to find a way to score more runs."
In addition to any activity on the free agent and/or trade markets, the Pirates also have to decide whether or not to open up a roster spot in order to make a selection in the Rule 5 Draft. The club's 40-man roster is currently full, meaning that someone would have to come off before the Pirates could make an addition.
The Rule 5 Draft is scheduled for Dec. 8 and is the final event of the Winter Meetings.