Pirates eye match in free-agent crop of pitchers |

Pirates eye match in free-agent crop of pitchers

Stellar pitching was one of baseball’s top storylines this year. It’s a big reason the San Francisco Giants won the World Series.

It was also the main culprit for the Pirates’ 18th straight losing season and their major league-worst 57-105 record.

Their 5.00 team ERA was the highest in the majors. Left-handers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke each had 15 losses, which tied them for second-most among NL pitchers. Ross Ohlendorf, who hoped to build in a mini-breakout in 2009, instead was hampered by injuries and hard luck.

“We must pitch far better in 2011,” team president Frank Coonelly said.

So when the free-agent market opens Sunday, the first day players are allowed to negotiate with other clubs, general manager Neal Huntington will begin shopping for help.

“We know we’ve got some holes to fill and some money to be able to do it,” Huntington said. “But, we’ll still have to do it intelligently.”

As usual, the Pirates will not be bidders for the top arms — Cliff Lee will have to get his millions somewhere else — and will instead eye second-tier starters and those trying to rebuild their value after disappointing seasons.

That could be someone like Doug Davis, 35, who became a free agent when Milwaukee exercised a $1 million buyout instead of his $6.5 million option. Although he put up double-digit wins each year from 2004-07, Davis has a total of just 16 victories over the past three seasons.

Also available is right-hander Jeremy Bonderman, a former first-round draft pick who went 8-10 with a 5.53 ERA this year with the Detroit Tigers. Bonderman, who last week turned 28, missed most of 2008 after having surgery to remove a blood clot. In 2009, he was limited to just eight outings (one start) because of shoulder pain.

Bonderman’s situation — a young player with upside who’s trying to re-establish himself — would fit with the Pirates. But his price tag — he made $12.5 million each of the past two seasons — likely is beyond the Pirates’ budget.

“It’s a low-supply, high-demand market,” Huntington said. “That lines itself up for some contracts that, as an industry, we’ll realize in three or four years weren’t very good contracts.”

The Pirates’ $35 million payroll this year was the lowest in the big leagues. However, Coonelly on Wednesday said the Pirates “have the capacity to have a payroll over $50 million” in 2011. Huntington said the Pirates could afford a big-money starting pitcher — if the conditions are right.

“If the right guy is out there … ideally, it’s a guy who we feel comfortable with for multiple years,” Huntington said. “If it’s a one-year deal, it also might make sense.”

Huntington stressed that he’s looking to free agents only as a way to supplement, not reload, the rotation.

“We need some of our guys to continue to develop, and we need some guys to bounce back,” Huntington said. “We’re not going to be able to go out and find five starting pitchers in a very, very weak free-agent market.”

The Pirates could try to bolster their rotation through trades. They did that this season with righty James McDonald, who arrived via a July 31 deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But dealing for pitching prospects, even highly touted arms, is a gamble. Consider Charlie Morton, whose shattered confidence landed him in the minors, and Tim Alderson, who was demoted all the way back to Single-A with his mechanics in disarray.

Huntington’s preferred option is to insert homegrown talent into the rotation. But the organization’s most promising prospects are at Double-A and lower.

Additional Information:

Arms race

Some free-agent pitchers the Pirates might consider:

Jorge de la Rosa, LHP, Rockies : Type A free agent, so he also would cost No. 1 draft pick.

Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Dodgers : Getting old (36) but still gets Ks and grounders.

Dave Bush, RHP, Brewers : Born in Pittsburgh one month after ’79 Series.

Rich Harden, RHP, Rangers : Didn’t do much for Rangers and was cut before playoffs.

Kevin Millwood, RHP, Orioles : Wildly inconsistent last three seasons.

Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, Tigers : A solid innings-eater; just turned 28.

Todd Wellemeyer, RHP, Giants : Could be worth giving a minor league contract.

Aaron Harang, RHP, Reds : Can he squeeze out one or two more good years?

Jeff Francis, LHP, Rockies : Age (30) and shoulder injury history are concerns.

Doug Davis, LHP, Brewers : Made just 8 starts with 7.51 ERA this year.

Chris Capuano, LHP, Brewers : Only 9 of 24 outings this season were starts.

Nate Robertson, LHP, Phillies : Went 6-8 with 5.47 ERA before Marlins dumped him.

Chris Young, RHP, Padres : Former Pirates prospect battled injuries lately

Rich Hill, LHP, Red Sox : Has made just 18 starts over past 3 seasons.

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