Huntington passes first test

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NASHVILLE — Maybe the Cleveland Indians expected too much of a “hometown discount” from former employee Neal Huntington. Maybe Huntington expected too much in return for his All-Star left fielder.

Either way, talks between the two teams that could have resulted in Jason Bay being traded to the Tribe are over.

The talks were going strong late Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings. Yet, when they sputtered to a halt Wednesday morning, the Indians issued denials to Cleveland media outlets that there was any conversation in the first place. It was a defiant, almost angry, response and a snub to Huntington.

Later in the day, Huntington confirmed the talks were “dead,” but suggested there was at least a small chance they could pick up again in the future, if the conditions were right. Huntington never named the players the Indians offered — outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, catcher Kelly Shoppach and lefty Cliff Lee — but intimated they were not the type of high-upside prospects the Pirates need to restock their system.

It was a baptism by fire for the rookie GM. To Huntington’s credit, he did not give in to pressure and pull the trigger on what would have been a bad trade simply for the sake of making a “comfortable” deal with his old club as a first step toward building up his new club.

Pirates fans may be unhappy that Bay is on the block — though they should realize it’s a deal that someday must be done.

But folks in Pittsburgh should be pleased that the Bucs’ new management team didn’t flunk its first test.

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Bay to stay … at least, for now

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NASHVILLE — Jason Bay is staying put. Again.

The on-again, off-again trade talks with Cleveland appeared to be snuffed by lunchtime today. The Indians issued a denial to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, while Pirates brass offered nothing but the sound of crickets chirping.

I’ve felt all along, this probably isn’t the best time to consummate a deal for Bay. If he has a strong first half, some contender may be willing to overpay at the trading deadline. Otherwise, there’ll be plenty of time next offseason to do a deal.

— The four-strong media “horde” that covers the Pirates had lunch this afternoon with new manager John Russell. JR is eager to get to minicamp, which will be held in early January in Bradenton, Fla., to get his first look at some pitchers, catchers and players coming off injuries. A former catcher, JR plans to start working asap with Ronny Paulino. Good luck with that.

— Russell and his wife could close a deal tomorrow on a new home in the North Hills. President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington also are buying houses in the area.

— JR’s coaching staff will gather en masse for the first time next week for meetings at PNC Park. After that, Russell will return to his home in Texas to celebrate the holidays and tie up loose ends. JR will return to Pittsburgh a few days before mini-camp begins.

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Busy day ahead

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NASHVILLE — An early start to what promises to be a busy day.

Unless you’ve been busy shoveling the driveway all morning, you already know the Jason Bay-to-Cleveland rumors caught fire again in the pre-dawn hours. This latest version would send Bay and catcher Ronny Paulino to the Indians for outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, catcher Kelly Shoppach and a third player — either lefty Cliff Lee or a minor league pitching prospect, depending upon what time of day you hear the rumor.

I’d be surprised if Pirates fans turn cartwheels if the deal goes down like that.

The Indians seem to believe Gutierrez has star potential, and Pirates GM Neal Huntington may think so too, since he previously was part of the Indians’ front office. Yet, many outside observers rate Gutierrez a bit lower on the stud scale. “Id be real disappointed if Gutierrez was the centerpiece of this deal for the Pirates,” one industry source told me today.

Gutierrez, 24, has more career homers against right-handers (nine) than against left-handers (five), but the rest of his splits are not encouraging. He mashes against lefties (.309 batting average, .845 on-base plus slugging percentage), but is more human against righties (.246, .692). It could someday turn out that the closest Gutierrez’s comes to being a star is sharing a birthday (Feb. 21) with Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The Pirates and Indians are still swapping cell minutes on the top floor of the Gaylord Opryland. But I would not be surprised if the San Diego Padres eventually work themselves into the mix.
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Walk a mile (or 10) in my shoes

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NASHVILLE — Chris Gomez looks to be a decent pickup for the Pirates.

The one-year, $1 million deal is not yet official, as Gomez, 36, must first pass a physical. That could be out of the way in the next day or so. The Pirates then must clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Gomez — bye-bye, Jose Castillo?

Gomez can play first, third and second bases. A right-handed batter — against left-handers, he has a career batting average of .274 and an OBP of .351 — Gomez’ll be able to spell Adam LaRoche against tough lefties.

Gomez has 15 years of experience and will bring a much-needed veteran presence to the clubhouse. I spoke with other reporters here at the Winter Meetings who have covered Gomez in the past, and they all say he’ll bring a positive, upbeat attitude. “Good guy to deal with” is the unanimous opinion.

&#149 The Pirates have filled their needs for utility infielders (Gomez and yesterday’s waiver claim, Josh Wilson). They still are seeking a backup catcher — a defensive upgrade over Ronny Paulino and Ryan Doumit would be nice — and bullpen help.

&#149 As part of a “get active, get healthy” project at school, my daughters are wearing pedometers and recording how many steps they take every day. I should have borrowed one of the pedometers and brought it with me to the Gaylord Opryland. I would’ve blown them away with all the tromping around the lobbies and hallways I’ve done today and yesterday.

I can’t take credit for the pedometer idea — that goes to my buddy Trent Rosecrans of the Cincy Post (who said he “kinda” stole the idea from Jason Beck of mlb.com). As of 7:30 p.m. CT, Trent had taken 18,800-plus steps today — about 10 1/2 miles worth of rumor-chasing.

Sports reporting could be the next fitness craze. I’ll make a million on DVD sales alone!

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Into the ‘pen

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NASHVILLE — Kip Wells is a free agent.

Whoopie.

Wells essentially stole $4 million from St. Louis last season, when he went 7-17 with a 5.70 ERA. He hasn’t reached double digits in wins since 2003, when he went 10-9 with a 3.28 ERA in 31 starts for the Pirates.

According to an ESPN.com report, Wells’ agents are shopping the right-hander as a set-up man, figuring no one will take a chance on him as a starter. It should end up being a wise strategy, assuming Wells still has some life in his arm. It’s a safer bet to count on Wells for one or two innings a night out of the ‘pen, rather than hoping he can battle through five or six as a starter.

The Pirates would be foolish to think of bringing back Wells as a starter. And at the moment, they have zero interest in signing him. But, if the dynamics of the team are altered in the coming weeks by a trade involving a reliever, they might want to at least kick his tires as a bullpen candidate.

GM Neal Huntington said most of the trade inquiries he’s getting involve the Pirates relievers — particularly set-up guys Damaso Marte and Salomon Torres. And while the Pirates have quality arms in the bullpen, they don’t have a lot of depth.
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Slow day … so far

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NASHVILLE — A slow start to Day 2 of the meetings, at least for the Pirates.

The Jason Bay-to-Cleveland rumor that flared up yesterday afternoon had fizzled by evening. It’s not that Bay is off the block; the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers have some interest. Rather, the timing probably isn’t right for a deal. If Bay rebounds from his so-so 2007 season, he could be moved by the trading deadline or next winter.

— Speaking of Bay, here’s an interesting tidbit from the Toronto Globe and Mail: Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey told the paper “sooner or later, we’d like to bring in a big-name Canadian player.”

— The Chicago Cubs might be making a play for Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth. GM Neal Huntington is talking with the Padres, Philles and Braves. Huntington could be looking to get a reliever in return for McLouth — perhaps a lefty, which would give him the leeway to trade Damaso Marte. It’s too risky to deal Marte now, given the uncertain status of John Grabow.

Grabow was bothered all last season by a sore elbow and found temporary relief via a cortisone injection during the season. A team doctor had advised having minor surgery in the offseason. Last month, however, Grabow got a second opinion from a orthopedist in Los Angeles, who said surgery was not necessary.

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Tomko a possibility

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NASHVILLE — The Pirates are interested in free-agent pitcher Brett Tomko, but have not yet engaged in formal talks with his agent.

Tomko, a right-hander, went a combined 4-12 with a 5.55 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.

The Padres reportedly have offered Tomko a one-year, $1.5 million contract for 2008. Tomko, 34, likely will wait until the first wave of free-agent pitchers have found destinations, then haggle with teams still seeking a back-of-the-rotation starter.

With 11 years of experience in the majors and the ability to start, spot start and relieve, Tomko would seem to be a good fit for the Pirates.

The Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers also may be interested in Tomko.

— THE BUS STOPS HERE: Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis caused a stir at the Gaylord Opryland this afternoon by making an appearance.

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Here we come a-Carroll-ing?

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NASHVILLE — GM Neal Huntington has said he’s generally happy with the Pirates’ core of players heading into 2008. One area he wants to upgrade as soon as possible, though, is the bench.

Hmmm …

One one point last season, the Pirates had one of the ‘ most productive benches in the majors — a group that included Josh Phelps, Matt Kata and Cesar Izturis. Phelps had a power bat. Kata could play just about anywhere and was a decent gap hitter. Izturis was versatile with above average defensive skills.

All three players were banished by the Pirates’ new front office team. Izzy signed with St. Louis for less than $3 million. Phelps and Kata are still free agents, and figure to latch on with someone before spring training starts.

Jose Castillo was on the Pirates’ bench last year, although he never did much (and never really was given much of a chance by ex-manager Jim Tracy). Castillo will get $2 million-plus through arbitration in 2008, and is a good bet to be traded.

If the Pirates seek to add a utility infielder via a trade, one possibility may be Jamey Carroll, whom Colorado has put on the block. Last season, he batted .225 with 22 RBI in 108 games (227 at-bats). Carroll can play second base, third, shortstop, right field and center.

Carroll was Montreal’s 14th-round draft pick in 1996 and played for the Expos/Nationals from 2002-05. Huntington was Montreal’s assistant director of player development in 1996 and ’97.

Colorado is searching for a lefty reliever and would need a setup guy if Brian Fuentes is dealt. In the past, the Rockies have sniffed around Pirates relievers Damaso Marte and Salomon Torres.

The Pirates might be willing to move one of their relievers for Carroll and a prospect — if the Rockies are willing to eat some of Carroll’s salary. Carroll will make $2.3 million this summer and has a $150,000 buyout for 2009.
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Winter blahs for Bucs?

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NASHVILLE — At last year’s Winter Meetings, there was a sense the Pirates were going to do something — most likely a deal for Adam LaRoche — sooner or later. The trade did not go down during the confab in Orlando, Fla., but it did happen a few weeks later.

This year, with a completely new management team in place, it’s hard to get feel for how the Pirates will tweak their roster — or even if they’ll do anything at all.

Jason Bay will be traded. It is inevitable. He has tons of talent and a low-budget contract, which should net the Pirates two or three top-notch prospects. That’s the rebuilding route president Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington want to take.

But Bay was awful for much of last season, and continued to be hampered by a gimpy knee. His trade value is at a low ebb. The Pirates are willing to wait and see if he can rebound, then swing a deal in July or next offseason.

Who could the Pirates trade now? Jack Wilson and Matt Morris could go, but their contracts are roadblocks. The New York Yankees are eyeing Damaso Marte, but the Pirates would be wise to make sure John Grabow is fully healthy before dealing their other lefty bullpen weapon. Salomon Torres had a bumpy ’07 season and has a lot of miles on his arm, but is experienced and could be a fine righty setup man in someone’s ‘pen.

Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady are drawing interest from several clubs. One rumor has the two outfielders packaged in a deal with San Diego in exchange for third baseman Chase Headley, who batted .330 with 20 homers last year in Class AA.

The meetings officially kicked off 2 1/2 hours ago. As usual, it’s a slow start. Stay tuned …

— The only thing that surprised me about Barney Dreyfuss’ election to the Hall of Fame was that it hadn’t happened sooner. Dreyfuss quickly molded the Pirates into a winner, was a tireless promoter of the game and helped create the World Series.

Dreyfuss also was the kind of owner the Pirates have lacked for a long, long time. He knew ways to draw fans to the ballpark. His colorful, outgoing personality rubbed off on the franchise. And he did not hesitate to open his wallet to reward the players and keep his top talent in Pittsburgh.

Must have been nice.
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