With free agency just one day old the Pirate have already been mentioned as being interested in Adrian Beltre, one of this winter’s top free agents. I’m not really sold on the Pirates having a ton of interest in Beltre (note the reporter and note Beltre’s agent and draw your own conclusions), but because Beltre would be a good fit for the Pirates and because he’s likely going to cost a ton of money and a draft pick he’s a good starting place for a larger discussion. Namely, that’s the question of whether or not the Pirates need to sign a big ticket free agent to establish themselves as credible in the bigger picture.
We can call this the Pudge Rodriguez Corollary. The Tigers lost 119 games in 2003 doing what the Pirates did last year; they cleared out their roster to make way for young players that mostly weren’t ready for prime time and they had an awful year. After the season ended, they signed the 32-year old Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year/$40 million contract even though everyone knew there was a good chance that by the end of the contract, Pudge wouldn’t be very good. But the young players improved and after they signed Pudge they signed Magglio Ordonez to a huge contract despite injury concerns before the 2005 season, then they signed 41-year old Kenny Rogers before the 2006 season and they found themselves in the World Series when that 2006 season ended. Signing Pudge sent the message that the Tigers were serious about spending money to supplement their young players, even if they had to overpay.
Do the Pirates need to do something similar? Beltre, for example, would be a nice fit for the Pirates if we pretend like we’re living in an alternate universe were a top free agent would actually come to Pittsburgh after a 105-loss season. He plays great defense at a position that the Pirates could use a better glove at and while he’s probably not as good of a hitter as he was in Boston last year he’s also not quite as bad as he was in Seattle. At 31, you could probably give him a four-year deal and not hugely regret it by the end, though that’s always a possibility. He would make the Pirates better in 2011 and maybe even in the long-term, depending on how he ages and what happens with the 2011 draft. People (fans, national broadcasters and journalists, other free agents) would all take the Pirates a little more seriously.
But is it something the Pirates should do? We already know that they’re operating on a pretty thin profit margin and Beltre will likely get a raise on the $10 million he made with the Red Sox in 2010. Most likely, he’ll end up somewhere between there and $12 or $13 million a year, plus the Pirates would probably have to pay a Pirate Tax given that some contenders are going to be interested. They’d have to give up the first pick in the second round, which is a place where Neal Huntington has found some considerable talent in the last three years. Wouldn’t the money that could be spent on Beltre be better served on JJ Hardy and Hiroki Kuroda and trying to win the posting bid for someone like Tsuyoshi Nishioka? That would address more than one need for the Bucs and might not cost a whole lot more than Beltre, without making a long-term commitment to a guy already past his 30th birthday with a spotty history at the plate.
I don’t have all the answers here, but I’m still inclined to think that the Pirates are better off not spending so much money in one place, now or ever. They don’t have the luxury of being able to make any mistakes with that amount of cash. Hopefully, when the Pirates do need a free agent to fill a hole and put them over the top, they’ll be in a different place as a franchise and it won’t take a history of grand, sweeping gestures to free agents to convince a quality free agent to wear a Pirate uniform.