The pursuit of happiness

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BRADENTON, Fla — In my feature story in today’s Trib, I touched on some of the reasons the Pirates did not make many offseason roster moves. The new front office team says it wants to give the players it inherited a chance to perform up to their proper levels and win. It also hopes certain players can boost their value as the midseason trade deadline draws near.

Remember tuning into “The Sopranos” each week and wondering who would get whacked and who’d be around for the next episode? That’s sort of how I think this season will play out for the Pirates, especially in the last few days of July. Who gets traded? Released? Banished to Indy?

The Pirates also did not do a lot of shopping — at least, not a lot of buying — on the free-agent market. A lot of that was because the market wasn’t that strong and it was overpriced. The days of the Pirates bidding against themselves for random has-beens — Joe Randa, Randall Simon, Raul Mondesi, Jeromy Burnitz — are over.

Money is one reason the Pirates did little on the free-agent front. Another reason was revealed in the explanation free-agent infielder Morgan Ensberg gave for signing a minor league contract with the Yankees: “It’s a great team and a great lineup. Most importantly, it’s a team that’s consistently playing for the World Series. After you’ve been in the league for a few years, you really start valuing that pursuit.”

The Pirates haven’t really been in that hunt since 1992, eight years before Ensberg made his major league debut.

Pretty ballparks and thick towels in the clubhouse don’t lure free agents. Neither, for the most part, do brand-name coaching staffs. What does cause a player to want to play for a particular team are money and a high probability of victory.

Right now, the Pirates cannot offer much of either.
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Going batty

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BRADENTON, Fla — Photographer Chris Horner is stationed with me here at the Trib’s Bradenton bureau (a six-room condo on 59th Avenue). He provides all the photos of workouts and games that you see in the paper and on the Website. He’s also taping the video snippets on the Web (check out the latest here).

The other day, Chris made an interesting observation: “What is it with managers and bats?”

Practically every time Chris peers through his lens to get a shot of John Russell, the Pirates skipper has a bat in his hands. Same goes for many of the other coaches, both on the Pirates’ staff and on other teams.

And they don’t just carry the bats around. They swing them, twirl them, tap them on the bench, point with them, stretch with them, pound them into the ground for emphasis. Saturday morning, coach Ray Searage was walking around with one sticking out of his back pocket.

It’s amazing somebody doesn’t get accidentally whacked in the noggin and knocked out every day.
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The countdown is on

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BRADENTON, Fla — Two days into spring training, and already I’m eager for the season to get under way.

I don’t mind being able to slip into shorts every day and going to work under sunny skies. And there are plenty worse jobs out there than lobbing questions at ballplayers.

And yet …

It won’t be long before the Every-Day-Is-Tuesday effect kicks in. The same routine, same schedule, blah blah blah every day.

I miss making breakfast for my kids. I miss the Junker and Crow show on the radio. I miss pierogies. I miss my XM Radio (the tuner has 10 presets, but all I really need are XM175 Home Plate and XM44 Fred).

In other words, I’m counting down the days until the home opener at PNC Park.
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Marte still here … for now, at least

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The Pirates dodged a bullet Tuesday when Damaso Marte walked away from a multi-car accident in the Dominican Republic with apparently nothing worse than a sore neck.

Marte was on his way to a workout with the Licey Tigers, his team in the Dominican Winter League, when he wound up in a three-car fender bender. Marte was riding in the car at the front of the bumper-to-bumper accident.

During the offseason, several teams made trade inquiries about Marte, who is one of the most dominant lefty relievers in the game. In 2007, Marte racked up 51 strikeouts in 65 innings and held left-handed batters to a .094 average. Rather than swap Marte, though, the Pirates dealt away right-hander Salomon Torres.

Marte, 32, is a formidable setup guy and also has experience as a closer — a valuable insurance policy in case of an injury to Matt Capps.

If Marte would have been seriously injured in the auto accident, it would have been a crippling blow to the Pirates’ bullpen, especially with spring training just two weeks away. Even worse, it could have damaged Marte’s trade value.

Wait, you may ask, didn’t the Pirates spend the winter turning down trade offers for Marte? Yep. But the Pirates still most likely will trade Marte before the year is over. He’ll make $2 million this season, a very reasonable salary, with a $6 million team option for 2009.

No way are the Bucs dishing out $6 million to a setup guy.

Rather than allow Marte to walk away with a $250,000 buyout next year, the Pirates will do the smart thing and trade him in July for a prospect or two.
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Still buying season tickets?

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The newness of PNC Park has worn off. The All-Star Game has come and gone. There was no Adam LaRoche-type player added to the roster this offseason. This summer, against an improved NL Central Division, the Pirates will field pretty much the same team that lost 94 games in 2007.

My question for you is, are you still buying tickets? And if so, what keeps you coming back?

I’m interested in hearing from season-ticket holders, especially the long-suffering folks who’ve been going to 20, 40, 60 or 82 games a season for decades. Did you renew your season plan this year, or have you finally said “Enough of the Bucs!” and plunked down the money on Penguins tickets or a Cancun vacation instead? Are a small business owner who gave up your box at PNC Park or are you thinking about ponying up the cash this year to get one?

Drop me an e-mail (rbiertempfel@tribweb.com). I’d like to hear your stories.
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Deal or no deal?

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The Pirates have made a bid to keep Freddy Sanchez around through at least 2010. The team has offered a contract for two years with an option for a third.

However, neither side will divulge the dollar amounts involved, so it’s hard to say how legit this offer is or what chance it has to get done.

Sanchez’s agent Paul Cobbe said last week that all of his conversations with the Pirates centered on one-year deals. However, members of Pirates management indicated that a multiyear contract was never off the table.

“It’s always been in the back of our minds that Freddy’s a guy we’d like to try to keep here beyond just the standard six years,” General Manager Neal Huntington told me today at PirateFest. “At times, we felt like we had a realistic chance of getting something done. At times, we didn’t. It’s really been the ebb and flow of the process.”

At the moment, whether this deal ebbs or flows is in the hands of Sanchez and his agent.

The team wants some type of deal — either a one-year or multiyear deal — in place before the arbitration hearing Feb. 11.

Other snippets from PirateFest today include:

• Any team that hasn’t won since the days of the first Bush administration has to find ways to be fan-friendly. But closer Matt Capps continues to go above and beyond the call of duty.

After a session of “Deal or No Deal” in which bobbleheads and luxury-seat tickets were prizes, most of the participants wandered off. Capps sat down on the edge of the stage and spent the next half hour chatting, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He only stopped because he needed the stage for a scheduled Q&A session.

• Most optimistic answer from the Q&A session: When a fan asked how many games the Pirates expected to win this season, Capps did not hesitate before answering, “One hundred and sixty-two.”

• Best answer to a sticky question: When asked whether he expected fans to stay away this season because of the steroids scandal, Zach Duke was a fast thinker. “The Pirates are clean, so it won’t affect us,” Duke said. That drew a solid round of applause and defused what could have been an awkward moment.

• Best props to the past: A fan asked shortstop Jack Wilson who he’d like to see playing second base this season. “If I had my druthers,” Wilson said, “Bill Mazeroski.”

• Smoothest talker: Nyjer Morgan, hands down. Most players offered brief answers to queries, but Morgan, the Pirates’ most outgoing player, is never afraid to open up. When someone begged Morgan to “tell us a little about you,” he listed his hometown (San Jose, Calif.), his first sport he played (hockey), his educational background (a junior college in Walla Walla, Wash.) and his pet name for his new Cadillac. “I call her Charlene,” Morgan said. “She rides real clean.”
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Hot stove? More like lukewarm

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I think one of the most interesting moments of today’s Hot Stove Luncheon at PNC Park came when GM Neal Huntington was talking about the missteps taken by the Pirates’ previous management team.

“We didn’t have patience,” Huntington said. “We didn’t make good baseball trades.”

Sitting in the back of the room, at a table with other Pirates players, was pitcher Matt Morris — the poster boy for ex-GM Dave Littlefield’s bad trades.

Other than that, there was no real buzz around today’s Hot Stove. Nor is there any around PirateFest, which begins tonight at the convention center.

Team prez Frank Coonelly began his Hot Stove remarks by noting that last year’s luncheon marked the Pittsburgh debut of Adam LaRoche (who, by the way, is near the top of the short list of Things Littlefield Did Right). This offseason, the front office has barely tweak the roster, other than to make a few waiver claims. And even though no one is giddy about the arrival of free agent Chris Gomez, Coonelly & Co. insist they’re willing to give the same-look Pirates a mulligan on their 94-loss 2007 season. “I really believe this will be a very exciting year for the Pirates,” Coonelly said.

It may be. More likely, though, it will be an exciting last week of July, when we find out just what the trade value is for Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte … and, maybe, Matt Morris.

Hot Stove snippets:

— Huntington indicated he’s got the green light to add significant payroll if the Pirates are contenders at the All-Star break. “If the team performs, we have the resources to add (via a trade) in July,” he said.

— Coonelly dished out plenty of praise for pitchers Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm. Then, Coonelly laughed and said he might not be so eager to compliment those guys next year, when they’re arbitration eligible. Something tells me Coonelly was only half-kidding — remember, he was a gunslinger for management in arby hearings during his time working in MLB’s main office.

— Bay said one of his offseason highlights was a trip to Vegas with Nady to see the Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton fight.

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Huntington passes first test

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NASHVILLE — Maybe the Cleveland Indians expected too much of a “hometown discount” from former employee Neal Huntington. Maybe Huntington expected too much in return for his All-Star left fielder.

Either way, talks between the two teams that could have resulted in Jason Bay being traded to the Tribe are over.

The talks were going strong late Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings. Yet, when they sputtered to a halt Wednesday morning, the Indians issued denials to Cleveland media outlets that there was any conversation in the first place. It was a defiant, almost angry, response and a snub to Huntington.

Later in the day, Huntington confirmed the talks were “dead,” but suggested there was at least a small chance they could pick up again in the future, if the conditions were right. Huntington never named the players the Indians offered — outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, catcher Kelly Shoppach and lefty Cliff Lee — but intimated they were not the type of high-upside prospects the Pirates need to restock their system.

It was a baptism by fire for the rookie GM. To Huntington’s credit, he did not give in to pressure and pull the trigger on what would have been a bad trade simply for the sake of making a “comfortable” deal with his old club as a first step toward building up his new club.

Pirates fans may be unhappy that Bay is on the block — though they should realize it’s a deal that someday must be done.

But folks in Pittsburgh should be pleased that the Bucs’ new management team didn’t flunk its first test.

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Bay to stay … at least, for now

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NASHVILLE — Jason Bay is staying put. Again.

The on-again, off-again trade talks with Cleveland appeared to be snuffed by lunchtime today. The Indians issued a denial to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, while Pirates brass offered nothing but the sound of crickets chirping.

I’ve felt all along, this probably isn’t the best time to consummate a deal for Bay. If he has a strong first half, some contender may be willing to overpay at the trading deadline. Otherwise, there’ll be plenty of time next offseason to do a deal.

— The four-strong media “horde” that covers the Pirates had lunch this afternoon with new manager John Russell. JR is eager to get to minicamp, which will be held in early January in Bradenton, Fla., to get his first look at some pitchers, catchers and players coming off injuries. A former catcher, JR plans to start working asap with Ronny Paulino. Good luck with that.

— Russell and his wife could close a deal tomorrow on a new home in the North Hills. President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington also are buying houses in the area.

— JR’s coaching staff will gather en masse for the first time next week for meetings at PNC Park. After that, Russell will return to his home in Texas to celebrate the holidays and tie up loose ends. JR will return to Pittsburgh a few days before mini-camp begins.

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Busy day ahead

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NASHVILLE — An early start to what promises to be a busy day.

Unless you’ve been busy shoveling the driveway all morning, you already know the Jason Bay-to-Cleveland rumors caught fire again in the pre-dawn hours. This latest version would send Bay and catcher Ronny Paulino to the Indians for outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, catcher Kelly Shoppach and a third player — either lefty Cliff Lee or a minor league pitching prospect, depending upon what time of day you hear the rumor.

I’d be surprised if Pirates fans turn cartwheels if the deal goes down like that.

The Indians seem to believe Gutierrez has star potential, and Pirates GM Neal Huntington may think so too, since he previously was part of the Indians’ front office. Yet, many outside observers rate Gutierrez a bit lower on the stud scale. “Id be real disappointed if Gutierrez was the centerpiece of this deal for the Pirates,” one industry source told me today.

Gutierrez, 24, has more career homers against right-handers (nine) than against left-handers (five), but the rest of his splits are not encouraging. He mashes against lefties (.309 batting average, .845 on-base plus slugging percentage), but is more human against righties (.246, .692). It could someday turn out that the closest Gutierrez’s comes to being a star is sharing a birthday (Feb. 21) with Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The Pirates and Indians are still swapping cell minutes on the top floor of the Gaylord Opryland. But I would not be surprised if the San Diego Padres eventually work themselves into the mix.
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– Rob Biertempfel