Tomko a possibility

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NASHVILLE — The Pirates are interested in free-agent pitcher Brett Tomko, but have not yet engaged in formal talks with his agent.

Tomko, a right-hander, went a combined 4-12 with a 5.55 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.

The Padres reportedly have offered Tomko a one-year, $1.5 million contract for 2008. Tomko, 34, likely will wait until the first wave of free-agent pitchers have found destinations, then haggle with teams still seeking a back-of-the-rotation starter.

With 11 years of experience in the majors and the ability to start, spot start and relieve, Tomko would seem to be a good fit for the Pirates.

The Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers also may be interested in Tomko.

— THE BUS STOPS HERE: Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis caused a stir at the Gaylord Opryland this afternoon by making an appearance.

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Here we come a-Carroll-ing?

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NASHVILLE — GM Neal Huntington has said he’s generally happy with the Pirates’ core of players heading into 2008. One area he wants to upgrade as soon as possible, though, is the bench.

Hmmm …

One one point last season, the Pirates had one of the ‘ most productive benches in the majors — a group that included Josh Phelps, Matt Kata and Cesar Izturis. Phelps had a power bat. Kata could play just about anywhere and was a decent gap hitter. Izturis was versatile with above average defensive skills.

All three players were banished by the Pirates’ new front office team. Izzy signed with St. Louis for less than $3 million. Phelps and Kata are still free agents, and figure to latch on with someone before spring training starts.

Jose Castillo was on the Pirates’ bench last year, although he never did much (and never really was given much of a chance by ex-manager Jim Tracy). Castillo will get $2 million-plus through arbitration in 2008, and is a good bet to be traded.

If the Pirates seek to add a utility infielder via a trade, one possibility may be Jamey Carroll, whom Colorado has put on the block. Last season, he batted .225 with 22 RBI in 108 games (227 at-bats). Carroll can play second base, third, shortstop, right field and center.

Carroll was Montreal’s 14th-round draft pick in 1996 and played for the Expos/Nationals from 2002-05. Huntington was Montreal’s assistant director of player development in 1996 and ’97.

Colorado is searching for a lefty reliever and would need a setup guy if Brian Fuentes is dealt. In the past, the Rockies have sniffed around Pirates relievers Damaso Marte and Salomon Torres.

The Pirates might be willing to move one of their relievers for Carroll and a prospect — if the Rockies are willing to eat some of Carroll’s salary. Carroll will make $2.3 million this summer and has a $150,000 buyout for 2009.
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Winter blahs for Bucs?

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NASHVILLE — At last year’s Winter Meetings, there was a sense the Pirates were going to do something — most likely a deal for Adam LaRoche — sooner or later. The trade did not go down during the confab in Orlando, Fla., but it did happen a few weeks later.

This year, with a completely new management team in place, it’s hard to get feel for how the Pirates will tweak their roster — or even if they’ll do anything at all.

Jason Bay will be traded. It is inevitable. He has tons of talent and a low-budget contract, which should net the Pirates two or three top-notch prospects. That’s the rebuilding route president Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington want to take.

But Bay was awful for much of last season, and continued to be hampered by a gimpy knee. His trade value is at a low ebb. The Pirates are willing to wait and see if he can rebound, then swing a deal in July or next offseason.

Who could the Pirates trade now? Jack Wilson and Matt Morris could go, but their contracts are roadblocks. The New York Yankees are eyeing Damaso Marte, but the Pirates would be wise to make sure John Grabow is fully healthy before dealing their other lefty bullpen weapon. Salomon Torres had a bumpy ’07 season and has a lot of miles on his arm, but is experienced and could be a fine righty setup man in someone’s ‘pen.

Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady are drawing interest from several clubs. One rumor has the two outfielders packaged in a deal with San Diego in exchange for third baseman Chase Headley, who batted .330 with 20 homers last year in Class AA.

The meetings officially kicked off 2 1/2 hours ago. As usual, it’s a slow start. Stay tuned …

— The only thing that surprised me about Barney Dreyfuss’ election to the Hall of Fame was that it hadn’t happened sooner. Dreyfuss quickly molded the Pirates into a winner, was a tireless promoter of the game and helped create the World Series.

Dreyfuss also was the kind of owner the Pirates have lacked for a long, long time. He knew ways to draw fans to the ballpark. His colorful, outgoing personality rubbed off on the franchise. And he did not hesitate to open his wallet to reward the players and keep his top talent in Pittsburgh.

Must have been nice.
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Forget about A-Rod

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Many of my brethren are writing stories today rating their teams’ chances of signing free agent Alex Rodriguez. GMs from the Phillies, Mets, Giants, Dodgers, Mariners, Rangers, Angles, Tigers, Indians and perhaps even the Nationals might soon be chatting with A-Rod’s agent. The poor beat writers in those towns will spend weeks chasing wild rumors and trying to get Scott Boras to return their calls.

As you might expect, that’s something I won’t have to worry about as someone who covers the Pirates.

The bidding for Rodriguez probably will start at $30 million per year — about $8 million less than the Pirates’ entire payroll last season.

The Pirates will pursue a free agent or two this winter. They’ll look over the list of available outfielders (not bad), catchers (not good) and pitchers (not worth it). They may even take a shot at a third baseman — but not A-Rod.

** ** ** ** **

When the Tigers traded Monday for shortstop Edgar Renteria, it might have ensured Jack Wilson will remain with the Pirates next season (or at least open the season in Pittsburgh). It was interesting to see pitcher Jair Jurrjens go to Atlanta in the trade. Back in July, Jurrjens was rumored to be part of a potential deal for Wilson.
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Tick … tick … tick …

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Word comes today that the New York Yankees might be set to announce their new manager as soon as tomorrow, barely a week after Joe Torre opted not to return for 2008. The Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds already have concluded their manager searches.

Almost three weeks after firing Jim Tracy, the Pirates have barely begun the interview process for a new manager. At this pace, you wonder if the new guys — the manager, assistant GM, farm director, etc. — will be in place before MLB’s winter meetings begin … even or spring training.

General manager Neal Huntington says he doesn’t have a timetable for making the hire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there’s no need to rush and wind up with a poor choice.

And yet …

I keep hearing whispers that things are taking a while to develop because the Pirates are having trouble finding people who are eager to work for them. The team’s track record over the past 15 seasons, combined with owner Bob Nutting’s decree of a low-budget, home-grown approach to roster-building, are not an attractive lure. Huntington insists that is not the case.

“I can’t tell you the interest level,” Huntington said. “But I can tell you we’re very pleased with the number and quality of names we’ve gotten from various sources. The ability to narrow that list has taken some time and a number of phone calls. We’re very satisfied with the depth of talent of the names we’ve been given.”

Speaking of the manager search, here are two more names to keep in the back of your mind: Ron Roenicke and Rudy Jaramillo.

Roenicke played in the majors from 1981-88. He’s spent seven years with the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, the first six as third base coach and this year as bench coach. From 1994-98, he managed at the rookie, Single-, Double- and Triple-A levels in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

Jaramillo might be jettisoned as the Texas Rangers’ hitting coach. Three years ago, he interviewed for the New York Mets’ manager job which ultimately went to Willie Randolph.

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McCutchen on track for stardom

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ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law believes Pirates outfield prospect Andrew McCutchen is going to be a star.

Law, who once worked in the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office, recently returned from scouting the Arizona Fall League. He gushed about McCutchen, who batted .273 with two steals in 11 games for the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

“That kid has lightning in his wrists,” Law said. “In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen fewer than five guys who’ve had that kind of quickness and strength in his wrists. He wasn’t the best prospect I saw, but he was the most exciting. “

Law worries, however, about the Pirates rushing McCutchen — who only two weeks ago turned 21 — toward the majors. McCutchen was so impressive during spring training that former GM Dave Littlefield and his lieutenants strongly considered promoting McCutchen to the Pirates by mid-season. Instead, he spent the bulk of the year at Class AA Altoona — where he got off to a very slow start — and was bumped up to Class AAA Indianapolis in late September.

“I hope they’ll give him at least half (of 2008) in Triple-A with a good hitting (coach), and tell him, ‘If you do this and this and this, we’ll bring you to the big leagues on Sept. 1,’ ” Law said. “Put that carrot in front of him, make it clear what he needs to do, and give him plenty of time to make adjustments in Triple-A.”

The biggest adjustment McCutchen needs to make, Law said, is using his body more when he swings. It’s something McCutchen either has not grasped or simply has not been taught so far in the minors.

Law said McCutchen has the same sweet stroke and power potential as Arizona Diamondbacks top rookie Justin Upton.

“If they can teach (McCutchen) to gather his weight back and then stride into the ball, he should be a 30-home run guy, easily,” Law said. “If you watch their swings side by side, Upton gets his body involved a lot more. McCutchen just doesn’t have that and he’s probably never been taught it.

“McCutchen is ‘Justin Upton Light,’ ” Law said, with a laugh. “But that’s still the best player on the Pirates by a pretty fair margin.”
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Farrell the right fit?

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The latest name to surface in the Pirates’ manager search is John Farrell, who’s in his first year as pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox.

Farrell, 45, was the Cleveland Indians’ director of player development from November 2001 until last winter, when he joined the Red Sox staff. During his five seasons in Cleveland’s front office, Farrell worked closely with … (wait for it!) … Neal Huntington.

Farrell’s lack of managerial experience is a potential drawback. But his success this season with Boston’s diverse pitching staff is a plus.

Farrell pitched in the majors for eight years with the Indians, Angels and Tigers. The right-hander has a career record of 36-46 with a 4.56 ERA in 116 games.

The Red Sox go into tonight’s Game Four of the ALCS trailing Cleveland, two games to one. If Boston comes back to win that series, Farrell probably could squeeze in an interview with Huntington before the start of the World Series. With the GM meetings and baseball’s annual Winter Meetings looming, Huntington is running out of time to get his management team in place.

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Big-name guy for the Bucs?

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The NL Central added another marquee manager over the weekend when the Cincinnati Reds hired Dusty Baker.

Baker won 53 percent of his games in 14 seasons with the Cubs and Giants. He joins a high-profile group that includes Lou Piniella (Cubs) and Tony LaRussa (Cardinals … for now, at least).

Houston’s Cecil Cooper, who had the interim tag removed at the end of September, doesn’t have much of a managerial track record yet, but it’s hard to argue with his resume as a player (five-time All-Star, .298 career batting average). The Brewers lost 90-plus games in Ned Yost’s first two seasons, but they have been in the hunt for the division title in two of the past three years.

It makes you wonder who the Pirates will hire. I don’t see first-time GM Neal Huntington hiring someone who is older, flashier and pricier. To do otherwise could set up an eventual power-grab showdown between Huntington and the manager. The Pirates have enough problems without having to deal with that potential distraction.

That takes Joe Girardi, Larry Bowa, Joe Torre (if Steinbrenner whacks him) and the like — that is, anyone who’s ever managed in the majors — out of the mix.

That’s good news for guys such as Torey Lovullo, who has taken a fast track through the Indians’ minor league system and had done a superb job the past two years in Triple-A.

Also, remember that Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly were under-the-radar names when they were hired. A surprise pick for manager would just follow the trend.

Whomever the Pirates hire, his job likely got a bit rougher when the Reds brought in Baker.

On a side note to Baker’s hiring, you’ve got to feel sorry for Pete Mackanin. Of the four interim manager’s in the game last season, Mackanin was the only one not to be rewarded with the full-time gig — despite having the best record (41-39) of the four. It was the second time “Coach Pete” failed to stick after doing a decent job as an interim manager. Mackanin is a good baseball mind and a great guy. He deserves a shot somewhere.

Here’s hoping Neal Huntington’s has Mackanin’s number on speed dial.
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Trim the fat

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A lot of attention has been focused, and deservedly so, on the personnel changes at PNC Park — the arrivals of Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, and the departure of Jim Tracy and his coaching staff. But even after a new manager and assistant GM are in place, management still will have important changes to make.

According to Huntington, the Pirates’ data collection system needs a complete overhaul. It will require more than installing new computer software.

Information about players in the Pirates’ minor league system is scattered among too many different people and departments. If Huntington wants to evaluate, say, a Class A outfielder, he must pull amateur and pro scouting reports from one source, contract information from another department, video files from another guy down the hall, statistical analysis from folks in another part of the building, and so on.

“There are a multitude of sources we have to go to right now,” Huntington said. “It’s not as efficient as it needs to be.”

It’s amazing that a franchise which so often operates on a shoestring budget can have so much unnecessary sprawl in its front office.

“We’re going to enhance the systems that are in place,” Huntington said. “We’re going to change the processes that are in place. We’re going to put ourselves in position to make the best decisions.”

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The envelope, please …

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The Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America annually hands out two postseason awards to the Pirates. The Roberto Clemente Award goes to the team MVP. The Chuck Tanner Award is given to the player who best conducts himself in a professional and cooperative manner with the media. Both awards are voted upon by local BBWAA members, about a dozen writers. Each voter selects two players, listed in order of preference, for each award.

In both cases, I had to do a little head scratching before casting my ballot. There were too many candidates for the Tanner Award and not enough for the Clemente.

My two picks for the Tanner Award were 1. Adam LaRoche and 2. Jack Wilson.

LaRoche was easy to deal with from day one, when he called me back twice during a layover at O’Hare Airport as he was on his way to Pittsburgh for the first time after being traded from Atlanta. When he was in a massive offensive slump the first eight weeks of the season, he didn’t duck any interviews or snarl when he got the same questions time and again. Wilson always has been a good guy in the clubhouse and always was accessible — even when he was briefly benched for batting/defensive slumps and when the former GM was trying to trade him.

Masumi Kuwata deserves an honorable mention here. He worked hard to overcome the language barrier with American reporters, and insisted on answering in English. And it’s hard to imagine what his life was like under the microscope of the Japanese press. Yet, I never saw him get agitated or hide out in the nether reaches of the clubhouse.

Plenty of other guys could’ve gotten my vote. Matt Capps, Xavier Nady, Ian Snell, Shane Youman, Zach Duke, Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth, Ronny Paulino and even coaches Jeff Manto and Jeff Cox were easy to work with.

My two picks for the Clemente Award were 1. Tom Gorzelanny and 2. Freddy Sanchez.

Gorzelanny was the team’s most effective pitcher. If not for some bullpen blow-ups, the lefty could have won 19 or 20 games. Sanchez’s average was lower than last year, when he was the NL batting champ, but he battled a knee injury from spring training and a sore shoulder that’s been ailing him for more than a year. He’s a clutch hitter and his defense at second base improved noticeably as the season wore on.

The results of the voting should be announced in a few days.
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– Rob Biertempfel