Category Archives: Pirates

Injury puts Liriano deal on hold

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates’ plans to sign free-agent left-hander Francisco Liriano are on hold after the pitcher injured his right (non-throwing) arm sometime around Christmas. Citing medical privacy laws, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington declined to reveal either the nature or extent of Liriano’s injury. “We continue to have dialogue with Francisco’s (agent), but there is nothing to announce at this time,” Huntington said.

On Dec. 21, the Pirates and Liriano were close to finalizing a two-year, $12.75 million contract. The deal was pending the completion of a physical exam. Liriano, 29, pitched last year for the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. He has a fastball that touches 95 mph, but also has put up a plus-5.00 ERA and averaged five walks per nine innings each of the past two seasons.

The Pirates wanted Liriano to fill the No. 3 spot in their starting rotation, behind veterans A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Righty James McDonald, who was erratic last year, would have gone into the No. 4 slot, with one of two rookies – Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke — in the final spot. Right-hander Charlie Morton is recovering from Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected back until mid-season at the earliest. Management would prefer to have top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole begin the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. If the club’s interest in Liriano continues to ebb, Huntington will look at other free-agent and trade options for starter candidates. “We’re always looking for ways to improve our club,” Huntington said. “But it there is not an acceptable upgrade out there, we’re ready to go forward with this group.”

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McPherson healthy, eager to compete for job

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The shoulder strain that forced right-hander Kyle McPherson to bolt early from winter ball likely will not cause him to be behind that the start of spring training. “Everything’s gone well (with rehab) so far, so I’ll be ready for spring,” McPherson told me this morning at minicamp. “I’m probably just a little bit behind (other pitchers) but I’m still in a good spot. We’ve got a good bit of time left before spring training, so I’ll be ready to go. I expect to be 100 percent by Day 1 (of spring training).” Pirates pitchers and catchers report to camp on Feb. 11 and begin workouts the next day.

The shoulder injury first flared up midway through spring training in 2012 and caused McPherson to miss the start of the regular season. He’d hoped to make up for some of that lost time by pitching in the Dominican Winter League. “I got down there and wound up straining the front part of my shoulder and it developed into a little bit of tendinitis,” McPherson said. “So we took the precautionary route and shut it down. I want to be prepared for this year because it’s a big year for me.”

McPherson and lefty Jeff Locke will go into camp as the two candidates for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation. Charlie Morton (elbow surgery) is out until mid-season and GM Neal Huntington already has said top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole will open the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. “I definitely have my mind set on taking that spot, just like Locke does,” McPherson said. “It will be up to (management) to decide. Charlie will be back soon, too. But, it’s mainly us two guys, me and Locke, going into spring training. It’s a big year and both of us will be ready.”

»»» It’s no great surprise, but Jameson Taillon told me this morning he’ll begin the season at Double-A Altoona. Last year, the righty went 6-8 with a 3.82 ERA and 1.168 WHIP at High-A Bradenton and 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA and 0.706 WHIP at Altoona. “It was an interesting year,” Taillon said. “I had a real good start in Bradenton, then kind of hit a wall for a bit. I learned a lot there about myself. Eventually, I got the callup to Double-A. It was only for a month or so, but it was really big for me to see how it is. I felt like I took a big step, on and off the field, as a professional player.”

»»» Updates 10:40 a.m.: C Michael McKenry checked into minicamp this morning, sporting a black goatee. “Something different,” he said, grinning. … Matt Hague took grounders at third base for the second day in a row. Hague made 16 appearances in the field, all at first base, in the majors last season. At Triple-A Indy, he played in 41 games at first and 50 at third. … 1B Gaby Sanchez made some  nice picks during the drawn-in infield drills. Sanchez looks thinner than he was at the end of last season and appears to be in great shape.

»»» Updates 11:40 a.m.: Jerry Sands put on a little bit of a show during batting practice on Clemente Field, mashing back-to-back shots onto the roof of the batting cages beyond the tall left field fence. Sands also made some nifty scoops at first base during fielding drills. … Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata were in Sands’ hitting group, the last one of the day, and each hit some long drives. Tabata ended the session with a shot that crashed onto the batting cage roof, then tossed his bat and smiled. … McCutchen and new hitting coach Jay Bell had a long, quiet conversation on the field before batting practice began.

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My Hall of Fame ballot

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bondsBRADENTON, Fla. — I was 7 years old when Roberto Clemente died and, as far as I can recall, I saw him play just once at Three Rivers Stadium. Honus Wagner, arguably the greatest Pirate of all time, ended his playing career nearly a half-century before I was born. So when people ask me who was the best Pirates player I ever saw, I reply it was Barry Bonds. I became engrossed in baseball in the mid-1980s and watched Bonds in action with the Pirates and San Francisco Giants dozens of times from his rookie season in 1986 until his final season in 2007. When he bolted from Pittsburgh as a free agent after the 1992 season, I already firmly believed Bonds was on a path toward the Hall of Fame.

I’ve been covering baseball for the Trib since 1994, but this is just my second year as a Hall of Fame voter. It was my first chance to vote for Bonds, to ratify what I had judged him to be more than two decades ago. I take the voting process very seriously. I evaluate candidates throughout the year by poring over stats, doing research on the Web and seeking input from former MLB players and execs as well as fellow reporters. And I consider more than just raw stats; the instructions from the Hall make it clear that a player’s character and respect for the game should be taken into account. By making the Baseball Writers Association its voters, the Hall has sort of made us caretakers of the game’s history and reputation. The results of this year’s voting will be announced at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

My ballot arrived in early December. I mulled the list of 37 candidates for another week before making my picks (each voter can choose up to 10). I selected six players: Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling and Lee Smith. I did not vote for Barry Bonds, the best Pirate — perhaps the best player — I ever saw.

I believe Bonds was a Hall of Fame talent in 1992. I also believe Bonds later enhanced his skills to monstrous proportions by stepping beyond the bounds of what is ethical. I believe he cheated the game. Bonds’ stats are famous, but the aura around him is infamous. He seems to care everything about the former and nothing about the latter, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to put a check next to his name on my ballot. Bonds still could get into the Hall someday — actually, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen. I’ll keep an open mind about him next year and every one after that until he is either elected for falls off the ballot. But, I also think a player getting inducted the first time he is on the ballot is a special thing. It’s a sort of ring of honor among an already elite group of men. Clemente deserved that. So did Wagner. Not Bonds.

OK, end of sermon. Here’s a bit more about the fellas I did vote for … Morris, Bagwell and Smith were on my ballot last year. Morris was the template for a successful pitcher in the ’80s. Smith sticks in my mind forever as a dominant closer, a guy no one (well, except Bonds) wanted to face with the game on the line. I saw Bagwell play when he was still in Double-A and even then his slugging was eye-opening. I bypassed Raines on my ballot last year and regretted it. He was one of the finest leadoff batters of all time, maybe the best ever in the National League. Biggio and Schilling are newcomers to the ballot. Biggio could flat-out play as a hitter, fielder, runner and leader. Schilling was durable, nasty on the mound and nails in big games.

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De Jesus eager for another shot

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A broken leg sidetracked Ivan De Jesus in 2009.
A broken leg sidetracked Ivan De Jesus in 2009.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Once the presumed second baseman of the future for the Dodgers, Ivan De Jesus now is eager for any opportunity he can get with the Pirates. “These last three or four years have been up and down,” De Jesus said Monday before the start of minicamp. “It’s not been easy. But this (past) year, I was feeling more confident. I’m going to be confident and be patient and, when the moment comes, I’ll be ready.”

A former second-round pick, De Jesus lost a shot to open the 2012 season with the Dodgers when he tore his oblique during spring training. It was the second time De Jesus was sidetracked by a preseason injury. He played in just four minor league games in 2009 after shattering his leg in a home plate collision during spring training.

Drafted as a shortstop, De Jesus was moved to second base after his leg healed. But he scuffled in brief stints with the Dodgers the past two seasons and was traded to the Red Sox in August. Almost exactly four months later, De Jesus was sent to the Pirates as part of the Joel Hanrahan trade. He has a chance to stick with the Pirates this year as a utility infielder. “I’ve moved around — third base, shortstop, second. There’s not any position I prefer,” he said. “The last three years, I’ve been playing more second base, so I’d say (I prefer) second. But, wherever they put me, I’ll try to do the job.”

In 48 games with the Dodgers and Red Sox, De Jesus batted .205 with a .500 OPS. Over eight seasons in the minors, he hit .298 with a .759 OPS. He’s not a base-stealer (just 21 thefts in the minors) nor a slugger, but he has sometimes shown patience at the plate and an ability to make contact. He doesn’t expect the Pirates to try to reconstruct his mechanics. “I don’t mess with my swing,” De Jesus said. “I know my swing and I know the type of hitter I am. I know I’m not going to hit for a lot of power, so I’ll stay with my gap-to-gap approach and try to get on base. I’ll let the big guys get the RBI.”

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Minicamp under way

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Good morning from Pirate City, where 36 (give or take) players are gathered for a week-long, voluntary minicamp. A handful of veterans – Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Morton, Jared Hughes, Clint Barmes, Michael McKenry and Alex Presley — are slated to attend, along with some non-roster invitees, guys on the 40-man roster and prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. (As of 8:30 this morning, McCutchen and McKenry were the only ones who had not yet arrived.) Manager Clint Hurdle also is on hand. Players will work out in the cages and on the fields from 9 a.m. to noon daily. There also are some informal get-to-know-you gatherings set: a golf outing this afternoon, a BCS game viewing party tonight, fishing on Tuesday and a USF hoops game Wednesday.

»»» Update 9:30 a.m. McCutchen has checked in and is taking hacks with the position players in the indoor batting cages.

»»» Morton has been rehabbing here since having Tommy John surgery last summer. He’s throwing long-toss — a progression from 60 to 90 to 120 feet, about 75 total throws per day — and last week started throwing on back-to-back days with an off day in between. Morton said he is on track to start throwing off the mound in late January or early February. Morton grinned when I asked if he expects to pitch in a major league game this summer? “Absolutely. One-hundred percent yes,” he said.

»»» Minicamp is especially valuable for newcomers such as Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus Jr., who arrived last month in the Joel Hanrahan trade. “The first thing I’ve got to do is learn my way around this building,” Sands said. De Jesus played winter ball in Puerto Rico, but his winter season came to an early end last week. DeJesus and his Manati teammates were suspended after refusing to play in a game because, they said, the team was behind on its salary payments. Ineligible for the playoffs, DeJesus instead came to Bradenton begin to fit in with his new mates. DeJesus won the Puerto Rican Winter League batting title with a .364 average.

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Minor league managers set

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The Pirates today promoted Carlos Garcia to manager of Double-A Altoona. Garcia, 45, spent the past two seasons as manager of High-A Bradenton. He was a Pirates infielder from 1990-96 and was an All-Star in 1994. Garcia replaces P.J. Forbes, who led the Curve to a winning record last season but left the organization in October after being offered a position in a lower level of the minors.

The Pirates also announced the rest of their minor league managers for 2013: Dean Treanor (Triple-A Indianapolis), Frank Kremblas (Bradenton), Michael Ryan (Low-A West Virginia), Dave Turgeon (short-season A Jamestown), Milver Reyes (Gulf Coast League Bradenton), Keoni De Renne (Dominican Summer League I) and Gera Alvarez (DSL II).

This will be Treanor’s third season at the helm in Indy. The Indians were 89-55 last season, which was the best regular-season record in all of Triple-A. Kremblas worked last year as a special assistant to minor league operations. Kremblas managed at Indy in 2009-10. Ryan, a native of Indiana, Pa., will make his debut as a manager. Turgeon last summer managed the New York-Penn League club in State College; the Pirates switched affiliates this offseason.

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Liriano deal nearly done

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I’ll be the first to admit I thought LHP Francisco Liriano would be too costly for the Pirates to make a serious run at signing him. But, as LaVelle Neal III of the Minnesapolis Star-Tribune first reported, the Pirates are set to sign Liriano to a two-year, $14 million contract. The deal is pending a physical, which a source tells me likely will happen soon after Christmas.

Liriano, 29, made $5.5 million in 2012 with Twins and White Sox, and went 6-12 with 5.34 ERA and 1.468 WHIP in 34 games (28 starts). He’ll join a rotation that already includes A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald. At this point, it seems likely either Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke will hold down the No. 5 spot until Gerrit Cole is ready. Potentially, that’s a solid rotation. A pricety one, too — Burnett will make $16.5 million (of which the Pirates will pay $8 million), Wandy will get $13 million (of which the Pirates will pay $8 million) and J-Mac (arby eligible) will likely get around $3 million. Locke and McPherson will make the $500,000 major league minimum. That means about $26.5 million of the Pirates’ projected (by Frank Coonelly) $70 million 40-man payroll will go to the starting rotation.

What does it mean for the rest of the pitching staff? It provides a safety net in case Charlie Morton (who probably won’t be back until July if all goes well) has an unexpected setback during his rehab from elbow surgery. It strengthens the case (at least from a financial standpoint) in favor of trading closer Joel Hanrahan (who’s expected to get around $7 million if he goes through arbitration). It also might mean the Pirates realized they weren’t going to get a solid major league pitcher in a swap for Hanrahan and/or they prefer to deepen their talent pool by dealing him for prospects (a sensible move in an offseason in which several blue-chip prospects already have been dealt).

»»» Former Pirates 1B Casey McGehee will play next season in Japan for the Rakuten Eagles. McGehee will get $1.3 million in base salary, with incentives that could boost the value to $2 million. He made $2.5375 this past season with the Pirates and Yankees.

»»» If I don’t post again before Tuesday, I’d like to wish all of y’nz a blessed Christmas (and/or any other holiday you celebrate) and a peaceful New Year.

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Rule 5 draft results

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NASHVILLE — For the first time since Neal Huntington became GM, the Pirates did not take a player in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft. It also is the first time since 2004 that the club did not make a selection. The list of those recent picks: Victor Santos (2005), Sean White (2006), Evan Meek (2007), Donnie Veal (2008), John Raynor (2009), Josh Rodriguez (2010) and Gustavo Nunez (2011). Meek became an All-Star, but quickly faded. Veal showed promise, but had surgery and moved out of the organization. Santos pitched in 25 games for the Pirates in 2006 and went 5-9 with a 5.70 ERA.

»»» In the Triple-A phase, the Pirates chose righty Phillip Ethan Hollingsworth from the Royals. Also, the Pirates lost infielder Elvys Gonzalez, who was taken by the Dodgers. At Triple-A Omaha last season, Hollingsworth pitched in 11 games (two starts) and went 2-3 with a 6.44 ERA and and 1.875 WHIP. Hollingsworth, 25, was a fourth-round pick in 2008. He’s pitched at Double-A and Triple-A in each of the past two seasons. The Pirates did not make any picks in the Double-A phase of the Rule 5 draft.

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Day 3: GM speaks

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NASHVILLE — On the third day of the winter meetings, the Pirates gave to me (and you, too) … a trade for a minor league lefty. A rather busy Day 3 at the Gaylord Death Star Opryland — lunch (smoked pork chop, which was yummy) with Clint Hurdle, followed by a Q&A session; a media scrum with superagent Scott Boras; and another late-afternoon session with Neal Huntington. The first two events, you’ve already read about in this blog. Here are some highlights of the GM’s chat:

»»» How likely are the Pirates to make a Rule 5 draft pick? “Our expectation is, the guys we like will be off the board before we pick. There are some upside guys in the pool, maybe more this year than in the last couple of Rule 5s. This year, there are some guys who have some ceiling, in our (scouts’) minds. Those guys are a bit more challenging to carry (on the roster). We’re in a different state as an organization than we were in 2008 or ’09, where we worked hard to try to carry a guy. Now, we need somebody who can contribute for us, and that will be a factor. We don’t want to try to compete with a 24-man roster. So even if the ceiling is really high, it could handcuff us.”

»»» When will it be time to pull Starling Marte out of winter ball so he doesn’t burn out? “Sooner than later. He’s doing very good there. One of the comments we’ve heard is that he’s a man among prospects. He loves the game. He loves to play. He wants to keep playing in his homeland; he feels an obligation. But we’ve got to protect him from himself a little bit and also make sure we protect him for us.”

»»» Do you approach J-Mac’s offseason routine after his second-half collapse last season? “As we did last year, we’ve stayed in contact with him. We’ve tried to work with him on what does he really believe in and what do we believe in, what changes would help. But we didn’t overhaul his offseason program, as far as, he isn’t throwing earlier or later.” Is he still learning how to mentally pace himself to pitch deep into a season? “Yeah. As guys gain more experience, they understand when to step on the throttle, when to cruise a little bit, when to tweak, when to stay with what’s worked. Sometimes, guys change what’s worked when they didn’t mean to. It’s a never-ending balance, working with guys in individualized programs.”

»»» On the trade which sent C Ramon Cabrera to the Tigers for LHP Andrew Oliver: “We see him starting over relieving. He’ll come to camp competing to be a starter. If not, we’ll look into the (Pirates) bullpen. And if not, we’ll have the conversation about Triple-A. We like the arm, the fastball, the breaking ball. We like how he does things. As tough as it is to give up a young, switch-hitting catcher who we like a lot, we felt like Andrew is a good addition.”

»»» Did the Russ Martin signing lead to Oliver trade? “Catching is always a position you need. With Russ, Michael (McKenry), Tony (Sanchez) and (Roman) Solis, we feel like we’ve got some upper-level catching depth. Russ allowed this move to be a little bit easier.”

»»» What type of offseason routine is Pedro Alvarez using this winter? “Pedro is in a good spot. He’s worked hard already this offseason, which is a great start. Our (trainers) are tracking him. We’ve had some individual visits with him, so we know he’s in a good spot.”

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Boras: Pirates never had chance with Appel

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NASHVILLE — Agent Scott Boras said the Pirates never had much chance from the start of signing Mark Appel, their first-round draft pick, but the team’s paramilitary-style training methods were not a factor. Appel rejected the Pirates’ $3.8 million offer and instead returned to Stanford for his senior season. He was the only first-rounder who didn’t sign with his team last summer.

“When you make decisions like that in the draft, they’re huge decisions,” Boras said tonight during a huddle with reporters at the winter meetings. “There was no communication with us (before the draft). We would’ve been happy to have given them an advance (notice) that they could’ve used their pick in (another) way. We certainly would’ve let them know we didn’t have a fit there. These players have options when you have that kind of talent. That was an unfortunate event for all of us.”

Boras said he had concerns about the Navy SEALs-styled training techniques used by the Pirates. “The health and safety of players — and I’m talking about great players because Pittsburgh drafts very high — is important,” Boras said. “If you’re a parent or a ballplayer, you make an analysis of what’s going on in every organization, as far as what they’re doing and what they’re committed to doing to preserve and advance the interests of the player. I think when you go to practices that are untested and that are certainly not the norm, it’s going to raise a level of concern. You want to be fair with every team, with how you evaluate them. But the benefits and detriments certainly need to be looked at.” Boras paused and smiled. “My understanding is they decided to do away with the K-rations,” he said.

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