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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