<
>

Pirates close to deal with free-agent 3B Randa

PITTSBURGH -- Joe Randa, the third baseman on the only Pirates team in 13 years to contend for a division title, is returning to Pittsburgh.

The Pirates, who lost out on signing free agent Bill Mueller, were close to agreement Thursday on a $4 million, one-year contract with Randa. The team held off announcing the signing until it reviewed results of a physical Randa took Wednesday.

Randa was a key member of the 1997 Pirates team that, despite having a $9 million opening-day payroll that was less than what Albert Belle of the Chicago White Sox made by himself, led the NL Central at the All-Star break and contended until the final week of the season.

That team, widely predicted to lose 100 games before the season started, finished five games behind division-winning Houston with a 79-83 record.

The Pirates then left Randa unprotected in the expansion draft, and he was chosen by Arizona before being dealt to Detroit. Randa, a career .285 hitter, has since played for the Tigers, Royals, Reds and Padres, spending six seasons in Kansas City from 1999 through 2004.

Randa, 36, hit a career-high 17 homers while splitting last season between the Reds and Padres, making $2.15 million. He has hit .300 or better four times, including a .302 season with Pittsburgh in 1997, and has driven in 80 runs or more four times.

Once Randa joins the Pirates, he should strengthen a position where they never did settle on a starter last season, with Ty Wigginton, Rob Mackowiak and Freddy Sanchez splitting time there. Adding Randa allows the Pirates to move Sanchez (.291, five home runs, 35 RBI in 453 at-bats) into the utilityman's role held last season by Mackowiak, who was recently traded to the White Sox.

Sanchez had the team's second-best average last season to Jason Bay's .306 among players with 150 or more at-bats, but the Pirates were reluctant to go into the season with him as their starter because of his lack of power.

Adding Randa also allows the Pirates to start third base prospect Jose Bautista at Triple-A Indianapolis. He had 23 homers and 90 RBI in 445 at-bats for Double-A Altoona last season.

General manager Dave Littlefield has been looking for an everyday third baseman and made a push to sign former AL batting champion Mueller, but he signed a $9.5 million, two-year deal with the Dodgers. The Pirates offered similar money, but Mueller preferred to play on the West Coast.

Since the Pirates finished a 13th consecutive losing season with a 67-95 record, they have traded for former Reds third baseman Sean Casey, a Randa teammate last season, and former White Sox left-hander Damaso Marte and signed right-handed reliever Roberto Hernandez.

The Pirates also were interested in free agent outfielder Eric Byrnes, who was not re-signed by Baltimore but might sign with Arizona. The Pirates sought to trade for Byrnes last year when he was with Oakland.

Unless the Pirates trade for or sign a right fielder, they expect to go into spring training with former starter Craig Wilson, a right-handed hitter, and former Indians outfielder Jody Gerut, a left-handed hitter, splitting time there. Wilson hit a team-high 29 homers in 2004 but missed most of last season with two hand
injuries and finished with five homers and 22 RBI in 197 at-bats.

Also, former Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Giovanni Carrara agreed to a minor league contract with the Pirates. The move reunites the right-hander with Pirates manager Jim Tracy, who also left the Dodgers after last season.

Carrara, an eight-year veteran, was 7-4 with a 3.93 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings last season. Carrara was removed from the Dodgers' roster in October and assigned outright to Triple-A Las Vegas.

Carrara, who will be 38 in March, is 29-17 with a 4.70 ERA in 288 games with five major league clubs. He was 24-10 in four seasons with the Dodgers.