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Pirates target rotation help at Winter Meetings

The Pirates will have at least $15 million in their pocket when they arrive at baseball’s annual Winter Meetings, which begin Monday in San Diego.

Most, if not all, of those dollars could go toward acquiring pitching help. Free agent left-hander Francisco Liriano is one of the Pirates’ top targets, sources told the Tribune-Review.

“One of the things that certainly would help us feel better about 2015 would be to acquire, via trade or free agency, a starting pitcher,” general manager Neal Huntington said.

The Pirates added depth last week by signing right-hander Clayton Richard to a minor league contract. Richard, 31, spent last season in the minors recovering from shoulder surgery.

Neither Richard nor Radhames Liz, who is expected to finalize a deal with the Pirates soon, figures to fit atop the rotation of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, A.J. Burnett and Vance Worley. Morton likely will open the season on the disabled list after having hip surgery in late September.

“Charlie has had a good offseason so far in terms of rehab and getting healthy,” Huntington said. “We don’t want to count him out, but we also need to make sure we’ve got some protection there.”

There are mid-priced options on the market such as Brandon McCarthy, Jason Hammel and Edinson Volquez, but the Pirates like what they’ve seen the past two years from Liriano. He went 23-18 with a 3.20 ERA in 55 starts, put up the best swinging-strike rate (13.4 percent) in the majors and was the Opening Day starter last season.

Liriano, 31, last month rejected a $15.3 million qualifying offer from the Pirates. He reportedly is seeking a deal in the range of four years/$60 million.

The Pirates have stayed in close contact with Liriano’s camp. The market for pitchers has moved slowly this offseason — the only notable signing was Burnett’s one-year, $8.5 million deal — but things should speed up once top free agent Jon Lester decides which offer to accept.

“It seems the way the market typically plays out at the upper end is everybody is waiting for someone else to go first, from the player side and the club side,” Huntington said. “Things seem to fall into place from there.”

The Pirates were in heavy pursuit of Lester at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, but he is not part of their plans now.

Last summer, Huntington tried to pry Lester away from the Boston Red Sox with a package of prospects. The cost of signing Lester as a free agent is dramatically different — the bidding reportedly started with offers of around six years and $135 million — so the Pirates are merely onlookers.

“There are things we feel we can and should do, and there are things we feel we cannot and shouldn’t do,” Huntington said. “It’s ultimately driven by the acquisition cost: the impact of what we give up, whether it be prospects or years and dollars.”

That doesn’t mean the Pirates won’t spend this offseason. Their player payroll next season is expected to top $90 million for the first time in franchise history.

“We have the capacity to reach that level, and I suspect we will,” team president Frank Coonelly said.

Since the 2010 season, the Pirates have increased payroll for their 40-man roster by $37.9 million. That’s an 86 percent increase.

Last season, the club’s final payroll was $82 million. If the team hikes its total commensurately, the Pirates would spend into the mid-$90 million range in 2015.

“The payroll increase certainly is welcome,” Huntington said. “It does allow us to be a little more aggressive. It allows for more flexibility and a little bit larger margin of error.”

The Pirates already have four players on their 40-man roster — Morton, Burnett, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte — who are under contract for 2015 at a total of $27.5 million. Jose Tabata is not on the 40-man roster, but he is contracted to make $4 million.

There also are 11 arbitration-eligible players, including Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Josh Harrison, who should cost of total of about $35 million. Including the other 16 players on the roster who are not arbitration eligible and will make around the major league minimum, the total comes to about $78.5 million.

“While it may appear we have a large payroll bump available, a large chunk of that will go toward retaining our own players,” Huntington said. “With that said, we do have flexibility in the free agent market, and we’re looking to add quality players.”

There is, Coonelly cautioned, the usual caveat.

“If we can find players to add who will help us win, then we’ll have the same increase as in the past four years,” Coonelly said. “But we’re not in a competition to see which team can spend the most money. We’re not going to spend an additional $9 million or $10 million just to spend it.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.


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