Pirates looking to sign Cuban defector Herrera

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are interested in signing former Cuban Olympic right-hander Yuslan Herrera to a three-year contract, but any deal looks to be at least several weeks away.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Herrera defected to the Dominican Republic a year after helping Cuba win the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He has not pitched competitively since 2005, but Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield recently saw him work out and likes his maturity and presence on the mound.

"He is much different from most of your drafted players -- he's a mature guy, 25, who has done very well at his level," Littlefield said Wednesday. "He's pitched in the Cuba equivalent of the major leagues -- right now, he would be an upper-level pitcher in the minor leagues and probably not too far away from the major leagues."

Herrera doesn't throw as hard as some players who have made their way out of Cuba and into the majors but can throw 90-92 mph with an above-average curveball. He also showed off a slider, a changeup and a split-fingered fastball -- a deep pool of pitches for a relatively young pitcher.

"He throws strikes," Littlefield said.

Unlike most clubs, the Pirates had a predominantly left-handed rotation last season with Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and, until he was hurt, Tom Gorzelanny, so they want another right-handed starter -- and not necessarily one who would be no better than a fifth starter.

Herrera, despite his lack of experience in organized baseball, would likely cost the Pirates a signing bonus of about $500,000.

If final terms are worked out -- and Littlefield said the sides are negotiating -- Herrera must obtain a visa and fly to the United States to undergo a physical before the Pirates sign off on any deal.

If the Pirates sign Herrera, he will be placed on their 40-man roster and is certain to be invited to their spring training camp.

Signing a Cuban defector would be a different route for the Pirates, who have largely ignored the overseas market for players and relied on scouting, drafting and signing North American players.

After accepting at least $25 million in revenue-sharing money during a 14th consecutive losing season in 2006, the Pirates are facing pressure from Major League Baseball to step up their spending for players now that a new, five-year labor agreement has been reached.

Being more active on the international market is one alternative to signing big-ticket free agents, an approach the Pirates have eschewed for years.

The Pirates have said only that they plan to keep their payroll in the upper $40 million range, the same as last year and about one-fourth that of the New York Yankees. However, those projections were made before players and owners agreed last month to the labor deal.

The Pirates expect a drop in ticket revenues in 2007 because season-ticket sales are expected to be far below the estimated 11,000 sold last season, an increase of about 2,500 from 2005. Season-ticket sales jumped last season because purchasers could also buy All-Star Game tickets.