Category Archives: Pirates

Day 3: Hurdle speaks

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRx6EzefuSM

NASHVILLE — Highlights of manager Clint Hurdle’s Q&A session this afternoon at the winter meetings:

= Considering the players currently at your disposal, who would you like at the top of the order? “I’m not even going to go there right now because that’ll get printed as here’s who we’re leading off. I don’t know right now. I’ve got some thoughts. I’ve got some thoughts on who I’d like to hit second, too. When you look at our personnel, you definitely want people up there that can move. It’s not so much the standard as it used to be. How many prototypical lead-off men are in the game right now? There’s probably a handful of guys that played in the ’80s or ’90s that you’re looking to lead off, guys that are actually in the game right now. But a man that can get on base, can score runs, the second guy used to be a guy that could handle the bat. Now it’s maybe a guy that can walk, handle the bat, stretch out an at-bat and a guy that needs to get on base. Our challenge is for all our men to show improvement all along those lines, better quality at-bats. We had a 3-hole hitter (McCutchen) who, even with the season he had, he still didn’t drive in 100 runs. You would have liked to think there would have been more opportunities there for him. We’ve got to find ways to get those two spots more often. I think there are some names we’re considering. I know there’s some names I’m considering, but we’ll see how it plays out.”

= How do you look at the finishes the last two seasons, and how do you contend longer next season and not have those collapses early? “As silly as it sounds, we’ve just got to play good, solid baseball. We’ve got to sustain momentum. I think some of it does come with experience. I think some of it comes with guys being in situations they’ve never been in before, not all our men but enough of our men to develop an attitude where we’re just going to work to get better every day. We can finish the season stronger, not just finish the season but to finish it stronger, improvement every day. I thought they had a much better understanding going into this season about the 162-game schedule. We’ve got to taste that again. It’s a hard season. It’s a long season. You’ve got to be a good club to win your division. You’ve got to be a good club to work your way into a wild card opportunity. We weren’t good enough. I think the sting of not being good enough and knowing where we were at one point in time, that we are good enough to play good baseball. It’s up to each man to find out how they can improve, whether it be mentally, whether it be physically, whether it be mechanically or fundamentally to sustain the success that we did show through 120 games.”

= When you won that (19-inning game) in St. Louis, did you think it might be a stepping off point? “I thought it was maybe another mile marker along the road of something significant. But I’ll tell you when I felt the best was after we beat the Cardinals at home in back-to-back games. We played arguably as good a baseball game as we’ve ever played in 24 hours. I thought that might jump start something. But the beauty of our game is you don’t win it on paper. You’ve got to go play every night, and I think that can get lost in translation, the importance of playing every night, showing up in a consistent way every night and not carrying baggage from the loss the day before, or sometimes that has collateral damage. And I think our guys are getting opportunities to learn how to let things go, move on, the importance of doing that versus what can happen if you do hold on to some things.”

= Has there been any discussion about having an assistant hitting coach? “Yes, there has, meaningful discussion. It’s definitely (a possibility), because coach (Mark) Strittmatter went to Colorado. He took a revolving coordinator job with the Rockies for a number of different reasons. So we’re going to have an opportunity to fill that position.”

= Do you feel a need to add pitchers from the outside the organization? “You know, I wouldn’t say … well, need? Yeah, everybody needs another pitcher. Externally, you say, you’re talking about getting an experienced guy because you don’t have those guys within your system. We have young men that are going to grow up and look for opportunities, whether it’s the two men we brought up at the beginning of the season or someone else that’s on the cusp. But we have had those discussions, as well, and we’re working our way through a lot of different branches. The biggest branch was cut a little less than a week ago. If we’re able to acquire a catcher, first critical point, we’re going to go this way. If we didn’t get Russ Martin, we’re going to go this way. So we’re following a different avenue now that Russ is with us and a part of our organization. We understand the depth and the importance of pitching; everybody does. And experienced pitching can also have a tremendous benefit. It’s tough to break in two young starters. Sometimes that’s what you need to do. That can be a challenge.”

= You’re referring to Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke? “Absolutely, those two guys we’re talking about, yeah.”

= Can you talk about James McDonald’s second half and how that impacts your thinking about next season? “Well, I think obviously if he would have had a second half like the first half, he’d be a lockdown probably No. 3 guy in your rotation. I do think we saw enough good … I love the way, the challenge that can be presented, and we do work in an industry and sometimes in society when something doesn’t go right, I think we have more fear of being wrong. We talked about this earlier today, gosh, is he a first half guy or a second half guy? I’m thinking he’s a first half guy or somebody in between. I think the experience is going to help him. There’s probably not the confidence level that he’s got going in that he had in the first half going into the beginning of it. But the beauty of our game, it’s a brand new start. We’re going to accentuate the positives. He’s continued to see the good stuff, why it went on, how it went on, the challenges that came in the second half, what was learned by them. I still have a good feeling about James McDonald. And what I don’t believe people put enough resolve into or thought into, this is a converted guy. This guy hasn’t been pitching since he was six. It was the first time he had a large amount of success bundled in a half of a season. I think that was a new experience for him, as well.”

= If, for whatever reason, Joel Hanrahan was no longer a Pirate next season, do you feel there are people you have at your disposal who can handle that late game role, the back end of the game? “Yes. Everybody thinks that you’ve got to have a guy that’s done it. There’s a bunch of guys that never did it until they got their first opportunity. You’d like to have somebody in waiting, but sometimes you don’t know who a guy is going to be. Grilli really never had the opportunity to pitch in the eighth inning last year, he’s been moved upon that. I can remember … I wasn’t in the organization, but when Joel first came over there was a large volume of people that never thought this man would be anything close to a major league credible closer. He’s put together two very successful seasons. He’s established himself in a very good place there. For me, it’s as much about opportunity, it’s not so much about having a bona fide guy. We’ve got big arms, I think, that play swing and miss stuff, eight guys better leverage situations and ground ball situations. So I think we have those guys available to us.”

= This is the first offseason that we haven’t been writing offseason stories or hearing talk on the radio about Pedro Alvarez. Is that pretty much what he needs, kind of a distraction-free winter? “I think it’s a benefit for anybody. And he deserves a lot of credit for there to be a lot of that talk has dissipated and gone away for a number of reasons. Number one, the level of play. Is he always going to be a lightning rod with some spikes up and some spikes down? I think that’s going to play out for a while as he matures as a hitter, but he’s always going to be electric and a player at the plate. He got into that role this year. He wants to be a third baseman. He works very hard at that. We’ll see how that continues to play out. But I do think he’s in the most comfortable place he’s ever been in professionally and especially since he’s been in a Pirate uniform.”

= Where is Neil Walker in terms of his injury? “He’s done with all the medical recovery and activity and therapy. He’s finished with all that and actually started his strength and conditioning program within the last two weeks. Probably two weeks ago, I had lunch with him while he was geared up for that. He’s in a very good place, very good place, ready to go.”

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Decision day for Grilli

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NASHVILLE — After pitching for a half-dozen teams over 10 years in the majors, overcoming a devastating injury and stints in the minors along the way, Jason Grilli finally is about to hit his big payday. The 36-year-old reliever is on his way to the winter meetings and is expected to choose from among nearly a dozen suitors, including the Pirates. Grilli wants a multi-year deal, and there’s speculation he could get two years and $7 million. If he gets a handful of offers with roughly the same dollars and years, the deal-maker could be whether or not Grilli is used as a closer.

In 92 games over the past two seasons with the Pirates, Grilli went 3-7 with a 2.76 ERA and a 1.161 WHIP. For his career, Grilli is 21-25 with a 4.34 ERA and a 1.413 WHIP. Three of Grilli’s five career saves came with the Pirates. Those numbers would soar if Grilli rejoins the Pirates and closer Joel Hanrahan is traded. Hanrahan is likely to make around $7 million next season and will be a free agent in 2014. The Pirates, who are expected to have a 2013 payroll of about $70 million (not including portions of salaries that will be paid by other clubs), don’t want to shell out $10 million — roughly twice as much as emerging star Andrew McCutchen will make — for two late-inning relievers.

Grilli blossomed last summer as Hanrahan’s setup man, and ranked second in the NL with 32 holds. His deadliest weapon is the fastball, and Grilli ranked fourth among NL relievers with 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, Grilli made $1.1 million, which was about as much as he made in 2009 and 2011 combined. He sat out the entire 2010 season while recovering from knee surgery.

»»» I saw Casey McGehee in the lobby a little while ago. He and his wife were checking out of the Gaylord and were eager to make the two-hour drive home to see their kids. “We’ll be back before nap time,” McGehee said, laughing. McGehee said he enjoyed his brief stint with the Pirates and had good things to say about Russell Martin, whom McGehee got to know a little after he was traded to the Yankees last summer. McGehee is a free agent and is still listening to offers. He would not be a good fit to return to Pittsburgh, as he’s seeking more than a bench job.

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Day 2: GM speaks

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NASHVILLE — Day 2 of the winter meetings is slipping away and there have been no moves (so far) by the Pirates. It’s been a mostly quiet overall for all the clubs. Here’s a synopsis of the 11-minute media session earlier tonight with GM Neal Huntington:

»»» Does Huntington feel pressure from the fan base to make a deal during the winter meetings? “I’ve said from year one that we’re never going to win the offseason. Our goal is to put together the best club and play playoff games in October. We’re not a alone in that. There are a lot of teams in markets like ours that, we’re not going to make the big splash in the offseason and during the winter meetings. That’s the reality for probably half the clubs in the industry. You look at the clubs that won the offseason a year ago, where were they in September and October? The wonderful thing about the game of baseball is that it’s played on the field — (there are) injuries, unexpected performances in a good (or) bad way, teams that jell or don’t jell. We’re always laying groundwork with agents and other clubs. We’re doing what we can do to build a winning organization. It may not happen today. It may take some time. It may be a work in progress. And I don’t think any single move is going to make it happen. We’ve got to stay true to the process.”

»»» Manager Clint Hurdle helped recruit free agent Clint Barmes last year. Is there anybody who fits that mold now? “There’s no question that Clint’s an asset for us. He’s a guy players want to play for.” Anybody specifically who he’s doing that with? “I’m not going to answer that question.”

»»» Who’s your likely leadoff hitter next season? “That’s another question for Clint.”

»»» How much do you consider veteran presence when acquiring players? “A veteran player who can still play can always help a team, especially one who’s good in a clubhouse. We’ve had some guys who’ve really helped us. We’ve had some who, unfortunately, didn’t play well who didn’t help us as much as we expected, either on or off the field. Their ability to impact on the field will, unfortunately, impact their ability to impact off the field.” Can a big, positive impact be made by a bench player as well as a starter? “You can, but you’ve got to get the right guy. Leading when you don’t play or when you don’t play well is extremely difficult. The impact is definitely mitigated when a guy doesn’t play a ton or play well. You want to balance the younger player sitting on the bench at the risk of his development versus the veteran players who’s happy being on the bench, which isn’t the right situation, either. It’s really something you take into account as you’re walking through how you’re filling out a bench.”

»»» Do you sense that many free-agent pitchers are waiting until the top-tier guys, such as Zach Greinke, sign before they do their deals? “It’s a tough question for me to answer because I don’t dictate the market. I don’t know what the other clubs are doing. Typically, each year you see one guy who kind of breaks the backlog. I don’t know that it’s one guy in particular. I think a lot of clubs are working through their boards and their offseasons and trying to find matches right now.”

»»» With more players signing long-term, pre-arbitration contracts, is the free agent pool getting older and less talented? “I feel like an old curmudgeon, but I certainly feel each year that the free agent market has been shallower and less talented. But we also complain that each (amateur) draft isn’t as deep, that each Rule 5 draft isn’t as deep, that each minor league free agent group isn’t as deep. I might just be getting older and forgetting that the farther away we get from the field, the easier the game seems.”

»»» Are the winter meetings a chance to meet, assess and possibly hire scouts? “The process here is more (geared toward) interns and entry-level job-seekers. Most of the time, our staffs are set by the time we get here.”

»»» What role will Bill Livesey have as your senior advisor? “Bill’s going to be all over the place. He’s going to be an advisor, an evaluator, a mentor. He’s going to do scouting and be in and around our player development system and evaluate what we’re doing. He’s seen and done just about everything in the game. He’ll help all of us grow.”

»»» Will you hold a voluntary minicamp? “We’ve talked about opening the facility again and letting the 40-man (roster) players know we’ll be down there. We’ve not made a final decision but it’s been beneficial in the past.”

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Latest from the lobby

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NASHVILLE — This afternoon, I heard in the lobby that the Pirates continued to explore a possible trade that would send first baseman Garrett Jones to the Mariners, but apparently made little progress. The latest report I’ve heard is that the Pirates were rebuffed after offering to send Jones to Seattle for right-hander Taijaun Walker, the Mariners’ top pitching prospect. Walker, 20, was a supplemental first-round pick in 2010 who wowed Mariners management that year in the fall league. With a plus fastball and a plus curveball, he has top-of-the-rotation potential. This past season, he went 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA and 1.374 WHIP at Double-A Jackson. Baseball America rates him the M’s second-best prospect.

Yesterday, Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times reported by the Pirates earlier had discussed a deal that would send Jones and closer Joel Hanrahan to Seattle for a package of first baseman Justin Smoak, catcher John Jaso and pitcher Hector Noesi. The proposal of Jones for Walker shows the Pirates are willing to deal Hanrahan and Jones separately and could indicate that the Mariners have cooled on Hanrahan.

Update 8 pm CT: GM Neal Huntington vehemently denied the Jones-Walker trade offer transpired. I’ll take him at his word, as he’s never given me a reason to do otherwise.

»»» There hasn’t been much buzz today about any imminent Pirates moves, although there are plenty of indications they are sorting through the group of non-tendered free-agent pitchers. Those players have been getting attention from a lot of clubs and everyone might be waiting for one or more of the marquee pitchers to sign and help set the salary bar for the mid-level guys. In other words, it could be mid-January before the Pirates find their No. 4 starter. Or, it could happen in 10 minutes.

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Winter meetings day 1: GM speaks

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NASHVILLE — Some odds and ends from GM Neal Huntington’s daily media briefing today that had to be cut out of my story for Tuesday’s paper …

»»» General assessment of today’s “action” at the winter meetings: “A typical day one. Moving day. You open up a lot of dialogue with clubs and agents. In some cases, you feel like you’re moving toward a destination. In others, you feel like you’re moving away. I think there’s a false sense of urgency, because everybody is in one place, we want to get things done and we’re a deadline society.”

»»» I asked if the Pirates had any internal options to act as closer if Joel Hanrahan is not around due to circumstances either man-made (such as a trade) or natural (such as an injury). Huntington, who of course knew what I was up to, smiled. “Joel’s our closer. We’ve got guys who are going to pitch in leverage situations in front of him that we’re comfortable with.”

»»» Mike Napoli today signed a three-year, $39 million deal, which was nearly double the annual cash the Pirates gave Russell Martin. Huntington’s take: “We felt they were very different players. We’re focused on someone who’s going to help our pitchers get better. Mike Napoli is a very, very talented catcher. We chose to go on the side of defense heavy.”

»»» The situations for 2013 in the outfield and at first base: “We’ve created depth and some choices for ourselves … in left, in right and at first. What we do at the end of spring training might not be the configuration we have on May 1. We have some young guys who we want to give opportunities because they’ve earned it. We’ve got some guys who’ve got to go out and do the job. We’ll have some good competition all the way throughout the course of the season. We’re going to commit to some guys, but if they can’t do the job, we’ve got some choices — Garrett Jones’ flexibility — the ability to play first or right field — is very nice for us. We’re looking forward to seeing what Gaby (Sanchez) can do. Travis Snider and Marte coming in with jobs. Alex Presley and Jose Tabata coming in to fight (for jobs). We’re going to have some very interesting decisions. We have some depth and some choices. We’re pleased with the options we have.”

»»» Will this spring training camp be make-or-break time for Tabata? “He’s still young enough and talented enough. With Taby, a big part of it is just conditioning. We need to get him back to where he was a couple of years ago. If we can do that, the athlete is going to show up again and the bat speed is going to show up again. He got in a bad spot last year. Young players do that on occasion; often, they bounce back. He’s not the first guy to go through some struggles in his second full year in the big leagues. He’s working hard in Florida with a personal trainer. We’ve checked in on him a number of times. We had some conversations about (winter ball) and agreed it was best for Jose to focus on strength and conditioning, to get into the best shape of his life and come into camp ready to compete for a job.”

»»» Right-hander Kyle McPherson had what Huntington said was “fatigue” in his shoulder and made an early exit from winter ball. “He threw the ball well there but just didn’t feel right, so we brought him home. He should be fine for spring training.”

»»» Also, posthumous congratulations to Deacon White, who today was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Pre-Integration Era Committee. White, who would turn 165 on Friday if he was still drawing breath, played for the Pittsburg Alleghenies in 1889, his final season in the National League (he retired in 1891 after one season with Buffalo of the short-lived Players League). In 55 games for the Alleghenies, White hit .253 with 26 RBI. His career batting average is .312 and he was a three-time league leader in RBI.

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Time to deal Hanny?

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NASHVILLE — A couple of years ago, I was chatting with GM Neal Huntington about how he goes about building a bullpen. He said one of the final pieces a championship caliber team needed to get was a closer, and it’s hard to dispute that logic. The Pirates already have a shutdown closer and are considered to be a couple of players away from being contenders in the NL Central — nonetheless, this seems to be the right time to move Joel Hanrahan.

In his final year of arbitration eligibility, Hanny can expect to make around $7 million in 2013. That might account for at least 10 percent of the Pirates’ total payroll. A team that trades for Hanrahan knows it likely is getting a one-year rental, as he will be a free agent in 2014. But in order for a team to get a compensation draft pick for losing Hanrahan to free agency, he must spend the entire 2013 season on that team’s roster. That makes it more likely the Pirates will deal him before Opening Day.

The Pirates have been shopping Hanrahan for several weeks now. As I wrote earlier today, I know of at least two American League teams who said no thanks. One scout told me his club was “shocked” by how low the Pirates’ initial asking price was for Hanrahan. That’s not entirely surprising. Hanny has put up some great digits the past two seasons — 76 saves and a 2.24 ERA in 133 games. But there are some factors that might cause teams to think twice about dealing for him. Hanrahan was hard to hit in the first four months of last season. His BAbip (batting average on balls in play) was .083 in April, .267 in May, .174 in June and .222 in July. However, his BAbip rose to .280 in August and .273 in September/October. In his final 10 outings of the season, Hanrahan suffered his only two losses of the year and put up a nasty 5.00 ERA.

Still, there will be a demand when (not if) the Pirates get serious about moving him. If it happens quickly, that would put the Pirates in position to possibly re-sign Jason Grilli to a two-year deal as the new closer, giving Justin Wilson, Jared Hughes or Bryan Morris time to mature into the role as an understudy. If Grilli goes elsewhere, the Pirates could turn to someone such as free agent Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) to fill the role in the short term.

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O’s eye Jones, Pirates eye Lannan

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NASHVILLE — Good morning from the winter meetings. Let’s jump into the rumor mill …

»»» The Orioles are seeking a bat with some pop, and might be interested in Garrett Jones. Baltimore could dangle some pitching, such Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and/or reliever Pedro Strop. Arrieta went 3-9 with a 6.20 ERA and 1.369 WHIP in 24 games (18 starts). Britton pitched in 12 games (11 starts) and went 5-3 with a 5.07 ERA and 1.541 WHIP. Strop was the O’s setup man last season and went 5-2 with three saves and a 2.44 ERA in 70 outings. Britton, a third-round pick in 2006, has made 40 appearances in the majors. A fifth-rounder in 2007, Arrieta was the Opening Day starter, but a series of bad outings might have nudged him out of favor with O’s management.

»»» To fill the No. 4 spot in their rotation, the Pirates have expressed interest in free-agent lefty John Lannan. They’ve liked him for a while, actually — and I should have a clearer picture this afternoon about how high he is on their wish list. He would seem to be a good fit in many ways. He’s a fly-ball pitcher who’s been stung by homers, but could benefit from PNC Park’s vast left field. He made $5 million this year, but was non-tendered after a down season and might be willing to take a smaller deal — such as, one year and $3 million — to re-establish himself. This past season, Lannan made just six starts (4-1, 4.13) for the Nationals and was banished to Triple-A. He doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts (4/7 K per 9 innings) and gets a lot of contact (9.1 hits per 9 innings).

»»» I’ve heard that, over the past few weeks, at least two American League teams said they were not interested when the Pirates came to them shopping closer Joel Hanrahan. There are some concerns about Hanny’s diminished effectiveness toward the end of last season and questions about his physical conditioning. Hanrahan is expected to make around $7 million in 2013.

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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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