2003 All Over Again?

This item, buried at the end of a new Ken Rosenthal piece, has me thinking:

While some high-revenue teams anticipate salary dumps by clubs in weaker financial positions, the Pirates are among the low-revenue teams saying that they can withstand the sharp economic downturn without shedding payroll.

 

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington credits the work and support of team chairman Bob Nutting for the team's increased stability. The Pirates, thanks to the introduction of new value packages, actually are on pace to meet their season-ticket goals.

"We will not need to move payroll," Huntington says.

As we enter late January, a number of big names remain free agents and, although I have no specific information suggesting this will happen, it would not surprise me if the Pirates suddenly became much bigger players on the market than they intended to be. 

In 2003, you'll recall, Dave Littlefield signed Jeff Suppan, Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs and Kenny Lofton for a grand total of about $4 million. These signings had the unfortunate effect of blocking Craig Wilson, who might have blossomed into more than he became if he had been allowed to play regularly in the first three years of Littlefield's tenure, but other than that these signings were some of the best moves Littlefield ever made. All four players were productive, and Suppan was later flipped with Scott Sauerbeck to the Red Sox for Freddy Sanchez.

Littlefield got very lucky with these signings, and there's no reason to think the 2009 Pirates can grab anywhere near that much talent with anything like $4 million, but some aspects of the 2009 situation are similar: tons of free agents remain unsigned, and mid-tier free agents seem to be going for bargain prices.

Also, the current composition of the Pirates matches well with the best players available in free agency. There are only a couple of really interesting infielders left (Orlando Hudson is the best in that group), but the Pirates don't really need any of those. There are a couple of interesting catchers left (like Jason Varitek), but they're mostly on their last legs. 

What the free agent hitting class really has left are outfielders, and the Pirates are planning on going into 2009 with Brandon Moss and Nyjer Morgan starting in their outfield. I'd like to see Moss get an extended shot, and I like Steve Pearce better than either Moss or Morgan, but none of those players are likely to help much in the long haul--Moss, when all is said and done, will probably be a fourth outfielder; the Pirates have little interest in Pearce anyway; and Morgan's just terrible.

Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu are all available through free agency. It is probably unlikely that any of them would sign with the Pirates, and it's possible that Ramirez, who is coveted and shouldn't even enter the discussion of outfielders who might come to the Pirates, will sign and set a reasonable market for Dunn and Abreu.

The fact remains, though, that Dunn and Abreu are available, and In any other year they would be signing long contracts that would be unwise for the Pirates anyway. In any other year, they'd have lots of competition for their services, and there would be no chance of the Pirates getting them without overpaying with a long and expensive contract.

This year, it might be different. Pat found this article, in which one agent is quoted as saying that Dunn won't get more than $5 million per year. I think that's unlikely, but if that's anywhere near the truth, I see no problem with the Pirates swooping in and offering, say, $13 million for a year (which is what Dunn made in 2008), or $20 million for two years. Given that, again, Nyjer Morgan will start in the outfield, I see no problem with something like this for either Dunn or Abreu.

I don't think the Pirates should sign any free agent for more than two years; to do so would jeopardize their chances of contending in 2011 or 2012. In 2009 and 2010, though, they won't be contending.

In the past, I've been dismissive of the idea of dropping real cash on veteran free agents, and I probably will be again. Just so I'm clear here: generally, I don't think the Pirates should waste their money or future on expensive free agents, and I don't think the Pirates should, at this stage, sign any free agent who jeopardizes their future in any way: by blocking an interesting youngster, by preventing them from spending lavishly on the draft or Latin America, or by causing them to have to pay the free agent while he's declining and the rest of the team is very promising. But I think this market provides the Pirates a special opportunity to pursue legitimately good players without doing any of those things.

Free agents don't want to sign with the Pirates, so I'd say it's unlikely the Bucs get anyone like Dunn. Someone like Brad Wilkerson is much more likely. But at this point, I think Dunn is worth a shot. 

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