Up close and personal

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (right) and David Miles, CEO of The Children's Institute, cut the ribbon for a new exercise room at the facility. (Sidney Davis/Trib photo)
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (right) and David Miles, CEO of The Children's Institute, cut the ribbon for a new exercise room at the facility. (Sidney Davis/Trib photo)

I’ve always thought the best thing about the annual Winter Caravan is that it allows fans to get more of an up-close-and-personal look at the Pirates. On the field, they’re pitchers and fielders, all wearing identical uniforms and usually trying hard to keep their emotions in check. But on the Caravan, they’re real people who do ordinary, wonderful and sometimes silly things. You get to see Andrew McCutchen being a human beat-box, James McDonald and Daniel McCutchen shooting hoops, and Evan Meek frantically stacking paper cups in a race against a fifth-grader. One longtime Caravan veteran tells of his group running through the streets of Johnstown late one night in a snowstorm, yelling, “Hello, bowling alley!” “Hello, drugstore!” just like that famous scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Today, when the Caravan pulled into The Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill, I saw manager Clint Hurdle nearly overcome by emotion. It was Hurdle’s third visit this year to The Institute, which has the premier program in the world for patients with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Through Hurdle’s “Wins for Kids” program, he and Pirates Charities raised $54,000, half of which went to The Children’s Institute. Hurdle’s daughter, Maddie, has PWS and as he spoke of the challenges and the joys of being her father, his voice caught in his throat. That was a real moment. That taught me more about Hurdle — what kind of man he is — than I’d learn from a hundred press conferences and post-game briefings.

»»» The Pirates signed reliever Ryota Igarashi, 32, to a minor league contract, though the deal has not yet been announced. The right-hander pitched in 79 games over the past two years with the Mets and put up a 5.74 ERA and 1.71 WHIP. … First baseman Steve Pearce, whom the Pirates cut loose a few weeks ago, signed a minor league deal with the Twins.


Bucs grab Nunez in Rule 5 draft





DALLAS – On the final day of the Winter Meetings, the Pirates this morning took shortstop Gustavo Nunez from the Detroit Tigers system with the eighth overall pick in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Nunez, 23, last season hit a combined .276 with five homers and 26 RBI in 96 games for High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. The switch-hitter was named to the Class A Florida State League midseason all-star team.

“He’s the classic defensive profile for a young shortstop,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. “The ability to field, throw and run. We recognize the challenges he faced at Double-A with the bat and we also recognize that he finished the season on the disabled list. We’ll take a look at him in spring training. It was a $25,000 gamble.” The Pirates must keep Nunez on their 25-man roster all season or offer him back to Detroit for half the $50,000 draft fee.

Also, the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted right-hander Brett Lorin off the Pirates’ Triple-A roster. Beat writer Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic tweeted that the D’backs “like his delivery, size and especially his command.”

The Pirates took three players in the Triple-A phase of the draft: left-hander Aaron Poreda and catcher Francisco Diaz and Charles Cutler. Poreda was a first-round draft pick in 2007, but poor control has derailed his career. “We were kind of shocked to see (Porda) available,” director of baseball operations Tyrone Brooks said.


Ohlendorf released


DALLAS — The Pirates have given up on pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, and early Thursday morning announced they have released the 29-year-old right-hander. The move was not a surprise. Ohlendorf lost his spot in the starting rotation even before the Pirates signed lefty Erik Bedard on Wednesday to a one-year, $4.5-million contract.

Ohlendorf pitched in just nine games this pastseason due to a shoulder injury and went 1-3 with an 8.15 ERA. He allowed 14 hits and 2.1 home runs per nine innings. In 2010, Ohlendorf went 1-11 with a 4.07 ERA and missed time with a back injury, yet won his arbitration case last offseason and was awarded $2.025 million. He is arbitration-eligible again this year, and would have gotten another pay hike if the Pirates had kept him.

The Pirates acquired Ohlendorf on July 26, 2008, as part of a six-player trade with the New York Yankees. He made 64 starts for the Pirates and went 13-27 with a 4.60 ERA.

Ohlendorf’s departure opened a spot on the 40-man roster for infielder Yamaico Navarro, who was acquired in a trade from Kansas City in exchange fortwo minor leaguers: pitcher Brooks Pounders and infielder Diego Goris. Navarro, 24, hit .264 in 59 games last season at Triple-A. In 22 games in the majors for the Royals and Boston Red Sox last year, Navarra hit .250 with a homer and nine RBI.


Navarro acquired from KC


DALLAS — Tonight, the Pirates acquired infielder Yamaico Navarro from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for minor pitcher Brooks Pounders and infielder Diego Goris. Navarro, 24, hit .264 in 59 games last season at Triple-A. He played 22 games in the majors — 16 for the Boston Red Sox and six for the Royals — and went 15 for 60 with a homer and nine RBI. The Pirates will make a roster move Thursday to clear space for Navarro on the 40-man roster.

»»» Lefty Erik Bedard, who today signed a one-year, $4.5-million deal, has had major elbow and shoulder problems in the past. Last year, he missed two late-season starts due to a sore knee. How much did the Pirates scout Bedard last season?

“We watched a lot of video,” GM Neal Huntington said. “We talked to a lot of different people about then and about prior to that. April was a struggle for him. May, June and August, he was tremendous. So it’s one of those things that we try to get people that were around him then, we tried to get video of him then. We tried to get our scouting reports of him when it was good and when it wasn’t so good. If he pitched so well in April, July and September as he did in the other three months, we wouldn’t be getting him. We wouldn’t be talking about him because he’d (likely) be on a multi-year deal for a whole lot of money. Because of the ups and downs, we were able to get him on a one-year deal and feel like he’s a great addition for us.”

»»» I asked Huntington if Jake Fox will get a look to possibly be the backup catcher (not likely, considering his defense is suspect) or if Fox is considered primarily a first baseman. “He’ll come to camp as a catcher,” Huntington said. “We’ll have to evaluate it. Is he good enough defensively that we can count on him for 60 games? Rod (Barajas) is going to be our primary guy, but we’re going to need 50, 60 games out of our backup. Does Jake make the club as a right-handed hitter of the bench that can go to multiple positions and allow Clint (Hurdle) the versatility that most clubs don’t have with the catcher? Most clubs your backup starts, your starter’s on the bench and that’s where he’s going to stay for the rest of the game. Very infrequently, and Clint was one of the few that would do it in the seventh or eighth inning in terms of most managers, using both catchers in the game before you get into extra innings. If Fox is on the club, he gives Clint the versatility to pinch-hit for one of our catchers or to make a move earlier in the game or it gives him another opportunity for a double-switch if it’s the right scenario. His catching is an asset, but I don’t know that we’re comfortable enough just yet to say he’s in legitimate competition for the backup.”


Welcome back, Nate



DALLAS — When the Braves declined his option and made Nate McLouth a free agent, the first team to call his agent was the Pirates. “I was a little surprised, but I was happy,” McLouth said today. “Winding down, when I knew I wasn’t going to be with the Braves anymore, it was a thought that went through my head, maybe coming back (to the Pirates) at some point.” McLouth called the choice to sign a one-year, $1.75-million contract with the Pirates “the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

The Pirates drafted McLouth in 2000 and he played for them from 2005-09. He cried in the clubhouse after being traded to the Braves in 2009. “My goal was to be part of helping the franchise turn around. It was a task I looked forward to,” he said. “To not be able to see that through was one of the most difficult parts of being traded. Now that I’m back, I welcome that challenge with the same enthusiasm as I had before, knowing that we’re even closer than when I left.”

Only two players — Jeff Karstens and Evan Meek — remain on the roster from when McLouth last wore black and gold. McLouth said there’s a different feel around the Pirates now, and added that the talent level has gone up. ” I’m anxious to join that and build off what they were able to do last year,” he said.

»»» McLouth was ejected in the ninth inning of the 19-inning game the Pirates and Braves staged in Atlanta last July. The Braves won, 4-3, when umpire Jerry Meals blew the call and ruled Julio Lugo safe on a not-so-close play at the plate. “We talked about that game for the rest of the year,” McLouth said. “None of us had ever seen anything like that. It was crazy. I can’t imagine being on the losing end of that game. Those are tough. You can say, ‘We’ll put this one behind us,’ but it’s tough to do.”

Does McLouth believe Lugo was safe? “Oh … I didn’t have a very good view of it,” McLouth said, laughing. “And I didn’t watch the replay, I promise.”


Let’s see how far we’ve come


DALLAS — I’ve gotten a lot of reaction, via email and Twitter, about the Pirates’ moves so far this offseason. No one, it seems, is very happy. I can understand that. But no one should be surprised. The front office folk have said repeatedly over the past couple of years the Pirates are not going to be players for big-money free agents. Not ever. Never. Nevernevernever. No way. That doesn’t change because the team flirted with first place for a couple of months last season. It won’t ever change, I expect, under the current ownership. With that being said, here’s a quick look at what they’ve done and what they’re working on …

Nate McLouth is a good guy and had a couple of good seasons in Pittsburgh, then stunk it up after being dealt to Atlanta. He sees his homecoming with the Pirates as a way to spark his career again. The Pirates see it as a low-cost insurance for left field — I get the impression that management still isn’t 100 percent sold on Alex Presley — and a way to bring an upbeat, veteran presence to the clubhouse. He’s not the big bopper the Pirates desperately need, but as a minor move, it’s OK.

When they signed Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes, the Pirates basically overpaid for a pair of defensive upgrades with so-so (at best) offensive potential. There’s not much more to say ’bout that.

Neither Wilson Betemit nor Mark DeRosa has come to terms yet with the Pirates, though talks continue. The team wants to sign one of those guys as Pedro Alvarez Slump Insurance. And, although no team exec will say it out loud, they want someone around who can give Alvarez a kick in the pants to stay sharp.

Jose Morales? He’s played in 96 games over four seasons in the majors and the next next home run he hits will be his first.

As for the pitchers: I get the sense that manager Clint Hurdle is more of a Jeff Francis fan than anyone in the front office. The suits have concerns about Francis’ past health issues and fret that his price tag will be too steep for a back-end starter. Erik Bedard can be one of the most effective lefties around when he’s healthy, but he’s often hurt.


McCutchen has room to grow



DALLAS — Andrew McCutchen had a breakout season in 2011 and earned an All-Star berth. But, in reality, is was only a breakout half-season. Over his first 88 games last season, McCutchen batted .291 with an .894 OPS and 15 stolen bases. Over his final 70 games, McCutchen hit .216 with a .722 OPS and five steals.

“Andrew’s got opportunities for growth in a number of different places,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said this afternoon, during a confab with reporters at the winter meetings. Hurdle confirmed what was clear to most observers: McCutchen started trying to do too much at the plate in the second half of the season, and would up doing too little. “He realized how risk and reward plays out in a swing,” Hurdle said. “You can spike some numbers and there might be some penalty in some other numbers.”

»»» Pedro Alvarez has been working with a personal trainer in Los Angeles after turning down the Pirates’ request that he play winter ball. Hurdle supports Alvarez’s decision. “I think he gets better every day he’s away. He needed some time to get away. I know there was a lot of conversation about what he should do; everybody’s got an opinion. But I think once he made a decision, got away and put down those emotional bags he’d been carrying all season, he’s feeling better about himself and he’s working hard. Everything’s in a better place. Everything is very positive.”

»»» Hurdle said Josh Harrison “will get an extended look in spring training” at shortstop. Harrison, who got a lot of playing time at third base while Alvarez was injured, began working out at short a few weeks ago in Instructional League.

»»» I asked Hurdle if he’d be comfortable going into the season with Alex Presley as the starting left fielder. “As we sit here today, Alex has done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Hurdle said. “He spent 10 days in Instructional League working on his basestealing and bunting, some small ball-type things. Everybody’s got their projection where you want power on the corners. But sometimes those options aren’t available. If we’ve got to recreate it with an outfield of Presley, McCutchen and (Jose) Tabata, so be it. It’s not all about homers. We’ve got many more things to worry about than power right now. You can score runs a number of different ways.”

»»» Catcher Michael McKenry also spent time this offseason — five days in Florida and five days recently in Pittsburgh — working one-on-one in the batting cage with Hurdle. McKenry is slated to return to Pittsburgh next week for more tutelage. “We spend an hour and a half each day, trying to fine-tune some things to get him in a better position to hit,” Hurdle said. “Time will tell on that. It’s all cage work right now, with some velocity and spin added as we go along. He’s been very receptive. It looks a little bit different now (but) not something you’re going to say, ‘Wow! What did you do?’ But we’re trying to get him more comfortable.”

»»» Hurdle said he hasn’t given any thought to the new rules regarding instant replay. “I’m good with what they decide. I just work here. I can conform and adjust.”



Betemit or DeRosa may be backup 3B



DALLAS — The Pirates are inching closer signing a pair of veteran free agents, though neither deal is finalized. Outfielder Nate McLouth seems poised to return to Pittsburgh on what likely will be a one-year contract. The Pirates, according to team and industry sources, also are engaged in talks with infielders Wilson Betemit and Mark DeRosa, and are optimistic they can get one of them to agree to a contract. The Pirates will not sign both players.

Betemit, 30, a Type B free agent, was non-tendered after hitting .285 with a .795 OPS last season for the Royals (57 games) and Tigers (40 games). DeRosa, 36, appeared in 47 games for the Giants and batted .279 with a .653 OPS. Either would be a good backup plan at third base in case Pedro Alvarez remains stuck in his deep funk.

»»» An update on the minicamp situation: The new CBA does not include an outright ban on mincamps, but it does restrict who can attend one. As before, attendance by players is entirely voluntary. Now, clubs may only invite up to 15 players. Only those who on the 40-man roster and who are in their first three seasons of service time are eligible. And once an invitation is given, it’s gone even if the player turns it down. The Pirates will hold organizatonal meetings in Bradenton, Fla., around Jan. 6, 2012, and plan to invite eligible players for the informal workouts.


Looking for a lefty


DALLAS — Unless the Pirates pull in a pitcher from outside their organization, they’ll open the season with five right-handers in their starting rotation. That’s why they’ll meet this week with the agent for veteran lefty Jeff Francis.

The Pirates tried to get Francis last winter, but he signed a $2 million deal with the Royals and went 6-16 with a 4.82 ERA and 1.437 WHIP. Francis’ best season was 2007, when he won 17 games for the Rockies and finished ninth in Cy Young voting. Francis, 30, is a workhorse, having made at least 20 outings in each of the past six seasons. His strikeout/nine innings rate, which was 6.9 in 2007 tumbled to 4.5 last season.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington admitted PNC Park favors left-handed pitchers, but insisted he’d be “comfortable” with five righties in his rotation. “We won’t pursue a left-handed starter just to get a left-handed starter. It’s got to be the right guy, right fit, right contract, right opportunity.”

The Twins and Mariners reportedly also will meet with agent Jim Lindell. One selling point for the Pirates is Francis pitched for manager Clint Hurdle when they were with the Rockies.

»»» Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Joel Hanrahan, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, Alex Presley, Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes are among 15 players scheduled to attend PirateFest Dec. 17-18 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Fans who attend are asked to bring an item to donate to Toys For Tots. Single-game tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Dec. 17.

»»» The last day to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players is Dec. 12. So it’s interesting to note that tender candidates Jeff Karstens and Chris Resop are slated to be at PirateFest five days later, but non-tender candidates Ross Ohlendorf, Jose Veras and Jason Grilli are not. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into it — Evan Meek and Garrett Jones are not scheduled for PirateFest, but I still expect them to be tendered contract offers.

»»» McCutchen (@TheCUTCH22) is now on Twitter. Here’s part of a tweet he sent yesterday to @ShaneVictorino: “Just in the burgh with maria gearing up for #piratefest … im (sic) freezing my dreads off.”


Where’s the offense?


DALLAS — The Pirates ranked 14th in the NL last season with 3.77 runs scored per game. They ranked 14th in hits, home runs and slugging percentage. They were 12th on on-base percentage and 15th in total bases. So far, they’ve added Rod Barajas (who has a .698 OPS and 125 homers over 13 seasons) and Clint Barmes (.703 OPS and 73 homers in nine seasons) — neither of whom will do much to spark the offense. “We feel like we’ve upgraded the club with Barajas and Barmes, probably more defensively than offensively,” GM Neal Huntington admitted. “Both guys have more power than the guys we had in those positions (last season).”

And yet, Huntington is optimistic that the Pirates’ offense will be better in 2012 because … well, just because it can’t be any worse. “There are realistic expectations we’re going to improve offensively at almost every spot on the diamond,” Huntington said. “We feel like we’ve got a chance to upgrade our offensive internally before we do anything externally. We need some things to go right. We need some guys to mature and develop. And if there’s a fit externally that upgrades us, we’ll certainly take a look at it.”

It’s reasonable to figure that Pedro Alvarez can’t be as awful again as he was all of last year, so there’ll be more pop from third base. Huntington is banking on significant, measurable improvements from Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley. The GM also seems willing to gamble that the first base platoon of Garrett Jones and Jake Fox/Nick Evans will produce.

Will all that happen? I’m not buying it. I tend to think that what we’ve seen from Walker, Tabata and Presley is what we’ll get — that’s not a bad thing, but it’s tough to foresee off-the-charts improvement. And I can’t believe any team could charge major league ticket prices for that kind of first base platoon. There remains plenty of room for improvement offensively.

»»» The Baseball Writers Association of America and MLB Network reached an agreement to televise the announcement of the rookie of the year, Cy Young, manager of the year and MVP awards, starting for the 2012 season. For the first time, the finalists (top five for MVP and top three for the other categories) will be announced in advance.

»»» Congrats to Pirates PR guy Jim Trdinich, who won the Robert O. Fishel Award, given to the top team public relations person in MLB. Trdinich has worked 27 years in baseball, including the past 23 years as a full-time member of the Pirates’ front office. The Fishel Award was created in 1981. Trdinich is the first winner from the Pirates.