Lefties and licorice sticks

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INDIANAPOLIS — Pirates GM Neal Huntington doesn’t yet know what to make of these Winter Meetings.

“I’m not sure I have a feel at this point,” Neal Huntington said today during a late-afternoon meeting with reporters in his suite at the Marriott. “I don’t think there’s been any big surprises, in terms of teams that have more money to spend or less money to spend, or teams that are looking to take on payroll vs. dump payroll. It’s pretty much what we expected, coming in.

“There are contract-for-contract conversations. Teams are trying to explore, do they just throw money at a problem or do they send prospects and trade for something. The economic impact is real, but I don’t think it’s any more or less than we anticipate.”

– Teams have inquired about pitchers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. Young starters, and especially left-handers, are at a premium, but Huntington said the Pirates wouldn’t necessarily seek a player(s) in return who could immediately step into their lineup. “It doesn’t have to be major league-ready talent,” Huntington said. “It certainly makes it a lot more comfortable. But to take a much lesser-upside player just because he’s major league-ready doesn’t make sense for us.

“And we feel like we have options internally. If we were to move a starter, we’d rely on Daniel McCutchen, Kevin Hart or Brad Lincoln much more quickly to go into the rotation. But it is still an option, if we get the right return.”

– The 40-man roster has two vacancies. Luis Cruz was claimed off waivers by the Brewers and pitcher Jeff Sues was sent outright to Triple-A Indy. Does that mean a Rule 5 pick is a slam-dunk? “There are a handful of names that we’re seriously considering,” Huntington said. “I don’t think it means we’ll definitely take somebody. But there are guys who interest us and who’ll warrant further discussion.”

– No surprise injures have popped up so far during winter ball and offseason conditioning among Pirates players and prospects. Huntington said he’s gotten “real good” news about Pedro Alvarez, who is training in Arizona, and Lastings Milledge, who’s working out in Tampa. Both players are under orders to slim down and build muscle. Team president Frank Coonelly recently checked up with Alvarez in person. “Frank met with Pedro and is pleased with where he is at this point,” Huntington said. “It’s still early. We’ve still got to get through Christmas.”

Is Alvarez in slim-down mode or maintain-weight mode? “We’re still working through the body composition,” Huntington said. “He deserves credit (because) he’s worked hard the second half of this year. His food choices are better, his body’s coming together better, but we still have some work to do. But we’ve seen very encouraging signs.”

A few feet away from Huntington sat the Pirates’ stash of Winter Meetings “comfort food” — licorice sticks, beef jerky, chips and cookies. “(Pedro) would not be allowed in this room,” Huntington said, laughing. “There are some apples over there that maybe would work for him.”

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Chulk OKs minor league deal

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Pirates’ first move of the Winter Meetings was a minor one. Right-hander Vinnie Chulk agreed to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training.

Chulk, 30, spent last season in Cleveland’s system, going 0-1 with a 3.75 ERA in eight relief appearances with the Indiana. He also went 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 18 relief outings for Triple-A Columbus.

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Season-ticket price freeze

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INDIANAPOLIS — For the eighth straight season, the Pirates are holding the line on season-ticket prices.

The team is touting its price freeze as the longest active stretch by any major league team. The Pirates will bring back their four “value plans” and will offer a new half-season plan, an enhanced extended-payment plan and have created special ticket prices for fans ages 14-under.

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Murtaugh narrowly misses on Hall vote

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INDIANAPOLIS — Former Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh came up four votes shy of winning a spot in the Hall of Fame. Murtaugh received eight of 16 votes from the Veterans Committee, which this morning announced the results of its voting. A candidate must be listed on 75 percent of the ballots for induction. Whitey Herzog, ex-manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and umpire Doug Harvey were inducted by the veterans.

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Infielder Garcia signed

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The Pirates have signed infielder Christopher Garcia, who played last season for Shreveport-Bossier of the independent American Association. Garcia, 22, played second and third base in 77 games for Shreveport-Bossier. He batted .361 with five homers and 52 RBI. Garcia was the Anaheim Angels’ 15th-round draft pick in 2007.

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Holiday food/clothing drive

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The Pirates will hold a food and clothing drive from Monday, Dec. 9 until Friday, Dec. 18.

Donations may be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the main lobby of the administration offices at PNC Park. After-hours donations may be left at the 24-hour security entrance at PNC Park, at the intersection of Mazeroski Way and North Shore Drive.

Non-perishable food and canned goods will be given to the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. Clothing will be sent to the Madre Laura Education Center in the Dominican Republic. Anyone who makes a donation will receive a “21” Roberto Clemente button.

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PirateFest tickets on sale Friday

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Tickets for the 20th annual PirateFest will go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday at PNC Park or by calling (800) 289-2827. The event will run Jan. 29-31 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Single-game, regular-season tickets will be on sale during PirateFest. Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, Andy Van Slyke, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Maholm and Andy LaRoche among the former and current players expected to attend.

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Brooks named director of baseball ops

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The Pirates today named Tyrone Brooks as director of baseball operations, Mike Basso as a major league scout and Toshi Nagahara as assistant athletic trainer. Also, Kevan Graves was promoted to assistant director of baseball operations.

Brooks, 36, spent three seasons as a professional scout for the Cleveland Indians and also worked 11 years for the Atlanta Braves. Basso, 45, spent seven years with the Toronto Blue Jays, including 2009 as manager at Triple-A Las Vegas. Nagahara, who spent the past two years with Cleveland, also will serve as interpreter for Pirates second baseman Akinori Iwamura.

— Voting is under way for the Ford Frick Award, which enshrines a broadcaster in the Hall of Fame. Among the 212 candidates for a spot on the ballot are the former Voice of the Pirates, Lanny Frattare, as well as the current crew of Bob Walk, Steve Blass and Greg Brown. You can cast a ballot online at the Hall of Fame’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/baseballhall). Voting will end Dec. 31. The top three picks from fan voting will be on the 10-person ballot. The overall winner, which will be decided by a HOF panel, will be revealed in February.

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