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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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