Details from Martin presser

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When he suits up for Canada this spring in the World Baseball Classic, newly signed Pirates catcher Russell Martin hopes to get a lot of playing time — at shortstop. “If I’m allowed to and it makes the Canadian team better, I do see why it would be a problem,” Martin said today after signing his $17 million deal with the Pirates. “If I do get the opportunity, I can’t wait to show everybody how (well) I can play short.” Hmmm … maybe there’s a position change in his future? Martin laughed. “I still like quarterbacking behind the plate. That’s a fun part of baseball. But, who knows?”

GM Neal Huntington can’t really block Martin from playing, but he didn’t sound thrilled about it: “Anytime a player goes to the World Baseball Classic, there are risks. But it’s awfully tough to take a player away from an opportunity to play for his country.” Beyond the possibility of injury, Martin will miss out on time he could be spending learning the Pirates pitching staff. “Russ is a very smart man,” Huntington said. “He’s been around a long time, so he’s had to learn a number of different pitchers in spring training, with different organizations, with in-season transactions. We’re going to help him in that transition process and we believe we can make it work.”

»»» Martin was behind the plate for most of A.J. Burnett’s starts with the Yankees in 2011, so he’s already familiar with the right-hander. “I must have caught almost every start he threw,” Martin said. “I love working with A.J. He got a bad rap in New York; people liked to pick on him because they knew they were going to get a response. He’s fiery, he has a lot of heart and I feel like he found himself back last year. He competes out there and he really cares, and that falls in with how I play the game, so we mix well together.” Martin said Burnett’s presence here was one influential reason to sign with the Pirates. Burnett sent Martin a few text messages during Martin’s negotiations with the Pirates. “I didn’t have a chance to actually converse with him,” Martin said, adding that he planned to call Burnett while riding back to Pittsburgh International Airport.

»»» Obviously, Martin is less familiar with the other guys on the Pirates’ pitching staff. “I don’t know all the guys from top to bottom. The core — A.J., Wandy, J-Mac — all those guys, I’ve known and I’ve seen. But there’s a lot of guys I’m going to have to watch video on to get a better understanding of them. But my feeling is, there’s some talent here. I’m sure that, from an outside perspective, the baseball world probably doesn’t see us compete on a level that I believe we can.”

»»» Rod Barajas replaced Martin when Martin left the Dodgers. Now, Martin is taking over for Barajas with the Pirates. “It’s a bit funny and it is kind of ironic,” Martin said. “Barajas is great guy, a great teammate. Hopefully, I can fill his shoes here.”

»»» Martin also is a big fan of manager Clint Hurdle. “He’s a stand-up, hard-nosed individual. I’ve always respected Clint. His teams play hard, they do the little things the right way. He’s a guy who’ll have your back, so he’s a guy you want to fight for. I trust him.”

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Karstens is non-tendered

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In order to clear space on their 40-man roster for catcher Russell Martin, the Pirates on Friday cut ties with right-handed pitcher Jeff Karstens. Karstens, who is in the final year of arbitration eligibility, has been designated for assignment and will not be tendered a contract. That makes him a free agent. “It was a tough decision for us,” GM Neal Huntington said. “We worked hard to reach a (contract) agreement with his agent and were unsuccessful. Our next step became trying to trade Jeff. We were unsuccessful. We’ve reached the decision to let him leave.”

Huntington declined to say right now whether the Pirates will tender their seven other arbitration-eligible players, including Charlie Morton, Garrett Jones and Neil Walker. The deadline is midnight Friday.

Pain in his shoulder and hip limited Karstens to 90 innings this season, his fewest since 2008. Yet when Karstens was able to pitch, he was effective, putting up a 3.97 ERA and a career-best 1.147 WHIP. He made $3.1 million this past season. Karstens is rehabbing at his offseason home in Baltimore and began throwing two weeks ago. “It’s going well,” Karstens said. “It feels nothing like it’s felt in the past (offseasons). I feel happy to throw. In the past, I was nervous about even playing catch in the offseason.”

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Martin agrees to 2-year, $17M deal

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Neal Huntington, under pressure to deliver a winning season in 2013, came through Thursday with the most expensive free-agent signing of his five-plus years as Pirates general manager. Catcher Russell Martin has agreed to a two-year, $17 million contract, pending a physical. Martin will be in Pittsburgh on Friday to finalize the deal, which was confirmed to the Trib by two sources.

Martin, 29, spent the past two seasons with the New York Yankees. This year, he made $7.5 million and batted .211 with 21 home runs, 53 RBI and a .713 OPS. With only one experienced catcher – backup Michael McKenry – on their 40-man roster, the Pirates made Martin their top offseason target. They considered going after Mike Napoli, but decided he was no longer able to handle the rigors of being a full-time catcher and thus better suited for the American League. Martin gives the Pirates an instant and significant upgrade defensively. He threw out 24 percent (20 of 83) of would-be base-stealers last season. Rod Barajas, the Pirates’ starter last season, threw out just 6 percent of base-stealers.

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Pitchers and catchers: Feb. 12

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Pitchers and catchers will hold their first 2013 spring training workout Feb. 12 at Pirate City. The first full-squad workout is set for Feb. 15. The Pirates will play an intrasquad game Feb. 22 at McKechnie Field, then kick off their Grapefruit League schedule Feb. 23 against the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla. The 2013 spring training home opener is Feb. 24 against the Braves. The Pirates will play seven games against the Orioles (whose home field in Sarasota is a 20-minute drive from Bradenton). The Grapefruit League finale will be March 28 against the Yankees in Tampa. They Pirates are off the next day, then play the Double-A Curve in Altoona on March 30. The team will work out March 31 at PNC Park before the 2013 season-opener April 1 against the Cubs.

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Good scouts more vital than ever

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The new caps on signing bonuses for the amateur draft and international free agent market put a crimp in the Pirates’ strategy for franchise building. One possible way around it is to redouble your efforts in scouting. “No question, the people that succeed in the draft and international market are going to succeed not on the basis of dollars, given the various caps that are now in place, but on the best scouting,” prez Frank Coonelly said. “It’s not only hiring more (scouts) and covering more (territory), but it’s hiring the best people and making the best judgements.”

So far this offseason, the Pirates have put forth a mixed effort in the scouting department. They lost Mike Leuzinger, who signed six of the team’s 30 top prospects, as rated by Baseball America. Having a top amateur scout walk away because he soured on his situation with the club is a huge blow. Yesterday, however, the Pirates announced they’ve hired four pro scouts — Ricky Bennett, Carlos Berroa, Ron Hopkins and John Kosciak. Bennett has a ton of experience with the Astros and Tigers as director of pro scouting and a minor league operations director. Berroa spent the past 15 years as an amateur scout and directed an academy in Puerto Rico. Hopkins was the Orioles’ national crosschecker and also worked for the Mets, Rangers, A’s, Mariners and Royals. Kosciak has three decades of experience.

Under GM Neal Huntington, the Pirates have expanded their scouting department, both in terms of size and expenditures. The added manpower, Huntington said, enables pro scouts to do a better job evaluating other MLB teams. “We’re able to have our guys give us deeper looks,” Huntington said. “They don’t have to go three days and out when scouting a team. We’re getting more focused scouting coverage instead of just blanket scouting coverage.”

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$25 million is too much

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A trusted source told me last night that early reports that the Pirates had offered catcher Russell Martin a deal worth $25 million were not true. This morning, George King of the New York Post writes that the Pirates’ offer is closer to $22 million, which makes more sense (well, that is, it makes sense in the twisted world of baseball’s economics). Martin made $7.5 million this year. The Pirates initially offered Martin a two-year contract, but have since sweetened it to three years.

If Martin takes the Pirates’ offer, he’d become one of the highest-paid players on the team behind AJ Burnett ($16.5 million, of which $8 million is being paid by the Pirates) and Wandy Rodriguez ($13 million, of which $8 million is being paid by the Pirates). Closer Joel Hanrahan, who’s in his final year of arbitration eligibility, is in line for a payday of somewhere around $7 million in 2013.

»»» The Pirates still are seeking at least one more starting pitcher, plus bullpen help. Giving $22 million to Martin over three years would put a serious dent in their budget. One solution would be to trade Hanrahan. Two sources with other teams have told me the Pirates already have begun discreetly shopping Hanrahan around the league. That could make things interesting Friday leading up to the midnight non-tender deadline. I will not be surprised if Hanny is dealt during the winter meetings or during spring training, if a top team loses its closer to injury.

»»» Finally, what would a three-year deal for Martin say about the status of Tony Sanchez? The former first-round pick remains one of the Pirates’ top prospects, but his performance the past couple of seasons in the minors cannot be described as sizzling. Still, the Pirates know they have zero chance to get Martin with just a one-year contract (unless it’s for, say, $15 million). Twenty straight years of losing records makes it hard to lure free agents. The front office believes Sanchez is not ready for full-time duty in the majors. A three-year deal for Martin could work fine for Sanchez — he could get in more development time at Triple-A, then work his way in as Martin’s understudy and perhaps take over the top job in 2015 as Martin’s getting set to move on.

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Season ticket renewals on upswing

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The Pirates saw season ticket renewals increase by 6 percent in 2012 and are expecting similar growth next season. “We are pacing significantly ahead of last year’s pace, which was significantly above the previous year’s pace,” team prez Frank Coonelly told me Wednesday. As usual, Coonelly declined to divulge specific numbers. Season tickets are the backbone of a club’s attendance figures and play a role in short- and long-range business planning. The club had been struggling to retain season ticket holders and luxury suite owners until 2011, when the Pirates showed signs of life in the NL Central race. They were in the hunt again most of last season, so it’s no surprise season ticket sales are headed up again. “Not withstanding the fact that we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to, there are many positives taking place with the club,” Coonelly said. “Our fans turned out in record numbers last year, with the second-highest attendance in the history of the franchise. People are excited about what we can do in 2013 and looking forward to our guys getting over the hump and finally finishing the way we know we can.”

»»» Overall, the Pirates drew 2,091,918 last season, the fourth time they’ve surpassed the 2 million mark. Coonelly stands by his assessment from a couple of year ago, when he said 2 million needs to be a starting point for attendance every season. “Over the last two years, we have seen significant growth in many of the areas of our business, but most importantly in ticket sales,” Coonelly said. “It’s our job to continue to grow that, because we’re still not where we need to be. Nobody’s resting on their laurels. We appreciate what the fans have done for us, in terms of turning out for the Pirates in 2011 and 2012, and we’re looking to build on that. We still have work to do to get ourselves into a position to generate the types of revenues necessary to sustain a championship-caliber team.”

»»» So, if attendance goes up, does the player payroll naturally follow? Yes and no, Coonelly said. “There is never a one-on-one correlation,” Coonelly said. “There are other expenses for the club than payroll — the entire development system, the scouting system. With the changes to the way the amateur draft and international scouting is working … while those are areas where we can’t invest as much money on the bonus side as we used to, it’s even more critical that our scouting and development is better than anybody else’s, so we need to make investments there. We also need to invest in PNC Park. We’re now moving into the 12th year at PNC Park, and it’s our obligation that we keep it the best ballpark in America. There are capital expenses there. The commitment is to reinvest the dollars we generate back into the team. I think we’ve demonstrated that we do exactly that over the past two years. Payroll has increased significantly, as well as (spending) in other areas. That will continue to be the case. It’s not always a one-on-one that every dollar generated goes into payroll. Sometimes, the dollars have to go elsewhere, but they’re all being invested back into the team.”

»»» Coonelly hinted a new, state-of-the-art scoreboard is coming soon to PNC Park. “It won’t be this offseason,” Coonelly said. “But, PNC Park and our fans deserve to have a scoreboard that is one of the best in the industry, and we’re working on a plan to provide that.”

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Pirates target Russell Martin

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The Pirates are pursing free-agent catcher Russell Martin. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported they Pirates are willing to offer a three-year, $25 million deal. When I asked GM Neal Huntington about it today, he refused to either confim or deny Heyman’s report. For that matter, Huntington also refused even to admit that finding a starting catcher — Michael McKenry and prospect Tony Sanchez are only options at this point — is the Pirates’ top priority this offseason. Other sources have told me the Pirates’ interest in Martin is real and they are willing to spend a significant chunk of their offseason player-acquisition budget to land him.

Huntington did say the team needs another backstop. “We’d like to get a guy who can handle a pitching staff and do the job defensively,” Huntington said. “But we also need offensive production. It’s hard to find a player who can do both.” Martin is a tremendous defensive catcher and is skilled at framing pitches, two areas where the Pirates struggled mightily last season. But, he hit just .211 this year and, as a right-handed pull hitter, Martin is not a great fit for PNC Park. This year, Martin hit 21 home runs, including 10 to right field. According to ESPN’s home run tracker, four of those shots would not have made it over the Clemente Wall at PNC Park.

There have been reports that Martin wanted four years/$40 million. Heyman’s report of a three years/$25 million offer from the Pirates is certainly more down to earth, but it still seems a lot for a guy with limited offensive skills who’ll turn 30 years old at the start of spring training. The catching market is thin, so the Yankees might be inclined to get into a bidding war to re-sign Martin — not a good situation for the Pirates. Do the Pirates need to stretch their budget for a pricey free agent as a way to to show the front office is serious about avoiding another midseason collapse? Perhaps. A few days ago, ESPN.com analyst Jim Bowden told me he thinks the Pirates would do well to overpay for shortstop Stephen Drew. Think back to 2004, when the Tigers gave Pudge Rodriguez a four-year, $40 million deal. It was a signal to other free agents that the Tigers, who lost 119 games in 2003, were intent on rebuilding. In 2006, Detroit finished second in the AL Central and this year they went to the World Series. In 2004, the Pirates went 72-89 and finished fifth in the NL Central. This year, they went 79-83 and finished fourth.

UPDATE 7:40 P.M. A source I trust tells me the Pirates never made an offer as high as 3 years/$25 million for Martin. However, the club does appear to have significant interest in Martin. Perhaps the front office is wary of being used as a stalking horse — a way to drive up the price from one team without ever really intending to sign with another. Whatever the case, the new few days should be interesting. I wonder if Joel Hanrahan — who may or may not be on the trade market next week at the winter meetings, depending upon what the Pirates need to do to get a catcher — is closely following all this cloak-and-dagger drama.

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Two trades as non-tender deadline looms

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The Pirates today made two minor trades, acquiring right-handers Zach Stewart and Vin Mazzaro and first baseman Clint Robinson. The Boston Red Sox swapped Stewart for a player to be named later. Mazzaro and Robinson came from the Kansas City Royals, who got minor league pitchers Luis Rico and Luis Santos. To open space for Mazarro and Robinson on the 40-man roster, infielders Yamaico Navarro and Matt Hague were designated for assignment.

The addition of Robinson creates a little bit of a crowd first base — assuming Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez, who both are arbitration-eligible, are tendered contracts by the midnight Friday deadline — but he most likely will open the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Robinson, 27, has been a productive hitter in the minors, batting .309 with a .889 OPS the past two years at Triple-A Omaha, but he’s blocked at the major league level by Eric Hosmer. Robinson, who bats left-handed, went hitless in four pinch-hit at-bats last year with the Royals.

Stewart, 26, would seem to fit with the Pirates as bullpen depth, probably at Indy. He bounced around with the Reds, Blue Jays and White Sox before being dealt to Boston in June as part of the Kevin Youkillis deal. He made two starts for the Red Sox and gave up 14 earned runs in 5 2/3 innings for a 22.24 ERA. In 33 outings (14 starts) in the majors, Stewart is 3-10 with a 6.82 ERA and 1.650 WHIP.

Mazzaro, 26, could be used as a No. 5 or No. 6 starter or long reliever — the sort of role filled the past couple of years by Jeff Karstens, who is also sweating the non-tender deadline. Mazzaro was Oakland’s third-round pick in 2005. In 2009, he began his career with 17 2/3 straight scoreless innings, the longest by a starter in A’s history. In 66 games (45 starts) in the majors, Mazzaro is 15-21 with a 5.22 ERA and a 1.622 WHIP. “He’s done multiple roles for Kansas City, but pitched more as a reliever toward the end of the season and had some success,” GM Neal Huntiungton said. “We’ll bring him to spring training with the idea that he can be a multiple-inning guy, but he’s also got some pitches that are very effective as a reliever. We’re not locking him into any role.”

»»» Prospect Gregory Polanco, who’s playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, has 6 hits in 30 at-bats with one run scored and a .200 on-base percentage. He still might be trying to shrug off the ankle injury he sustained during the summer and then reaggravated during a workout a couple of months ago.

»»» My Hall of Fame ballot arrived the other day. This is the second year I’ve been eligible to vote, and it’s also a ballot I’ve sort of been dreading because of the steroids issue. I’ve pretty much made up my mind about Barry Bonds — more on that in a later blog — but am still listening to arguments, pro and con. If you want to share your view on this year’s HOF vote, I’m listening. Comment here, tweet me or send an email.

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Warm up the buses

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The Pirates today released details of their annual winter caravan, which will visit 20 communities over Dec. 11-13. Included are stops at three of the club’s minor league affiliate towns: Altoona, Charleston, W.Va., and Jamestown, N.Y. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Jared Hughes, Michael McKenry, Bryan Morris, Alex Presley, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata and Justin Wilson all will be riding the buses. Some of the caravan events are private or invitation-only. Here’s a breakdown of the public appearances:

= Dec. 11: Allegheny General Hospital lobby, 3-4 p.m. (Presley, Sanchez); Ross Park Mall, 6-7:30 p.m. (Presley); South Hills Village, 6-7:30 p.m. (Harrison); Giannilli’s II, Latrobe, noon-1:30 p.m. (McKenry, Tabata); The Galleria of Johnstown, 6:30-8 p.m. (McKenry, Tabata).

= Dec. 12: Peoples Natural Gas Field, Altoona, 6:30-8 p.m. (McKenry, Tabata); Suncrest PNC Bank, Morgantown, W.Va., 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (Walker, Morris, Alvarez); Fort Steuben Mall, Steubenville, Ohio, 6:30-8 p.m. (Walker, Morris, Alvarez); Cranberry Mall, 6:30-8 p.m. (Presley, Harrison, Sanchez); Butler Community College, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. (McCutchen, Hughes, Wilson); Indiana Mall, 6:30-8 p.m. (McCutchen, Hughes, Wilson).

= Dec. 13: Dubois Mall, 6:30-8 p.m. (McKenry, Tabata); Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, Ohio, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. (Walker, Morris, Alvarez); Uniontown Mall, 6-7:30 p.m. (Walker, Morris, Alvarez); Jamestown (N.Y.) Community College, 6:30-8 p.m. (Presley, Harrison, Sanchez); Ohio Valley Mall, Wheeling, W.Va., 6:30-8 p.m. (McCutchen, Hughes, Wilson).

»»» Absent from the list of players on the caravan: Joel Hanrahan, Garrett Jones, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald. Don’t necessarily read too much into that, though, as these guys might simply be getting a break. Hanrahan and McDonald participated in the past two caravans. Jones was on board in 2010 and ’11. Karstens did it last year.

»»» This will be McCutchen’s fourth straight year on the caravan and his fifth PirateFest.

»»» If I was the czar in charge of scheduling gameday promotions at PNC Park next season, I’d buy up every crate of Twinkies I could find and have a Twinkie giveaway day.

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