Calling Cabrera

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The Pirates have taken a big first stop toward becoming bidders for free-agent pitcher Daniel Cabrera.

Cabrera’s agent, Mike Powers, exchanged several e-mails over the weekend with a Pirates official. The Pirates have not yet made an offer for Cabrera, a right-hander who last season went 8-10 with a 5.25 ERA in 30 starts for the Baltimore Orioles.

Powers said he already has gotten two firm offers for Cabrera and expects a few more this week. Pirates management is very interested in Cabrera, and almost assuredly will make an offer.

– Outfielder Jason Michaels gave up waiting for the Pirates to call. Today, he signed a free-agent deal with the Houston Astros. Michaels got a one-year contract worth $750,000 — a steep discount on the $2.15 million he made in 2008.

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7 of 8 players tendered contracts

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The midnight deadline for teams to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players is fast approaching. Seven of the Pirates’ eight players in this mix have been tendered.

Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm (all first-time arby eligibles) have been offered multi-year deals.

John Grabow and Adam LaRoche (both in the final year of arby eligibility) and first-timers Tyler Yates and Zach Duke also got offers.

That leaves righty Denny Bautista. All indications are he will not be tendered and will become a free agent. That gives the Pirates one vacancy on the 40-man roster — perhaps to be filled by a free-agent outfielder or starting pitcher.

McLouth, Doumit and Maholm were no-brainers. Grabow ($1.135 million in 2008) and LaRoche ($5 million in ’08) won’t come cheap. Don’t become too attached to them as Pirates; both can become free agents after the 2009 season.

Yates made $800,000 last season and will break the $1 million mark next year. But the Pirates are willing to pay that price — for now, at least — because of his power-arm upside.

Duke took a pay cut last spring as a 0-to-3 guy, and was no pleased. It will be interesting to see what he gets for ’09.

Be sure to scan the list of non-tendered players in the morning. I guarantee you GM Neal Huntington is giving it more than a quick once-over.

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Sign, celebrate … sleep

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Ramon Vazquez celebrated his new contract with the Pirates by taking a long, winter’s nap.

The free agent shortstop was in Pittsburgh this morning for his physical. Vazquez was supposed to fly back to Puerto Rico this afternoon after inking his two-year, $4 million contract. But when a snow squall delayed his flight, he opted to spent and extra night in town instead of risking missing his connecting flight.

Did Vazquez open a bottle of bubbly, perhaps? Or rent a limo and go out for a fancy dinner?

“I went back to my hotel room and fell asleep,” Vazquez said, with a chuckle.

Vazquez said the Pirates contacted him more than month ago, shortly after he declared free agency. He put up career-best stats (.290, six homers, 40 RBI) last season while playing for the Texas Rangers.

Pirates GM knew a bit about Vazquez before making the initial contract offer. Vazquez played for Cleveland in 2005-06, while Huntington was working in the Indians’ front office.

“He provides us with a legitimate major league player off the bench … or if an everyday opportunity pops up,” Huntington said.

Hmmm … it is possible a spot might “pop up” if and when the Pirates finally trade shortstop Jack Wilson. Vazquez has spent much of his career as a utility player, but is a natural shortstop.

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Huntington ‘optimistic’ about Vazquez

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LAS VEGAS — General manager Neal Huntington confirmed the Pirates’ interest in free-agent infielder Ramon Vazquez.

“We’re working through some things with Ramon,” Huntington said. “We’re optimistic.”

The Pirates have offered a two-year, $4 million contract to Vazquez, who has spent eight seasons in the majors as a utilityman with five teams. There are indications the deal might come together quickly, sometime in the next 24 hours.

Vazquez’s agent, Melvin Roman, did not immediately return a phone call from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Last season, Vazquez batted .290 and played in 105 games for the Texas Rangers.

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Rule 5 draft results

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LAS VEGAS — The Pirates chose left-hander Donald Veal in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft.

Veal, 24, went 5-10 with a 4.52 ERA last season for Tennessee, the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A affiliate. He made 29 starts, but the Pirates may use him as a reliever.

The Pirates must either keep him on their 25-man roster all season or offer to sell him back to the Cubs for half of their $50,000 investment.

A second-round draft pick in 2005, Veal throws a low 90s fastball, two variations of a curve and changeup.

The addition of Veal left the Pirates with one vacancy on their 40-man roster.

The Pirates lost left-hander Kyle Bloom, who was claimed by the Detroit Tigers. Bloom, 25, was 5-8 with a 4.19 ERA last season for Double-A Altoona.

In the Triple-A phase of the draft, the Pirates made three picks. They got lefty Andres Santos from the New York Yankees’ system, infielder Rafael Quintero from Cleveland, and righty Gerardo Esparza from Seattle.

Last season in the Dominican Summer League, Santos went 3-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 13 games (nine starts). He had 49 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings. Santos, 22, is 6-2, 1809 pounds.

Quintero made 23 starts in the Dominican Summer League and went 5-1 with a 1.36 ERA. He walked five and struck out 48 in 46 1/3 innings.

Esparza played in the Venezuelan Summer League and went 4-5 with a 1.81 ERA in 15 games (13 starts).

In the Double-A portion of the draft, the Pirates did not claim a player. The Pirates lost no one in either the Triple- or Double-A phases.

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Pirates get lefty in Rule 5 draft

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LAS VEGAS — The Pirates chose left-hander Donnie Veal in the first round of the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft.

Veal, 24, went 5-10 with a 4.52 ERA last season for Tennessee, the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A affiliate. The Pirates must either keep him on their 25-man roster all season or offer to sell him back to the Cubs for half of their $50,000 investment.

The Pirates lost left-hander Kyle Bloom, who was claimed by the Detroit Tigers. Bloom, 25, was 5-8 with a 4.19 ERA last season for Double-A Altoona.

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Vazquez on the way?

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LAS VEGAS — ESPN.com is reporting this morning the Pirates are “on the verge” of signing free-agent infielder Ramon Vazquez. Reportedly, it would be a two-year, $4 million deal.

Vazquez, 32, played the last two seasons for the Texas Rangers. He also has been with Seattle, San Diego, Boston and Cleveland.

Last season, Vazquez set career highs in batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.365) and slugging percentage (.430). He also made 13 errors, one shy of his career high, in 105 games.

Vazquez can play all four infield spots, but has been used most often at shortstop and third base.

– The Kansas City Royals may have emerged as a surprise player in the Jack Wilson sweepstakes.

– The Pirates have not yet commented either way on the report.

The Rule 5 draft will begin in about 20 minutes. The Pirates likely will make a pick at the major league portion, but also could lose a player in the process. More in a bit …

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Fast fall for Paulino

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LAS VEGAS — A year ago, Ronny Paulino was the Pirates’ incumbent starting catcher. He quickly tumbled from there to a backup role, then to a spot on the minor-league disabled list. The free fall ended with Paulino landing in the Phillies organization.

Tonight, the Pirates swapped Paulino for Jason Jaramillo, a 26-year-old switch-hitter.

Jaramilo is the second catcher acquired by Huntington in four months. Robinzon Diaz arrived in August in the Jose Bautista trade. It gives the Pirates four catchers on the 40-man roster, including Ryan Doumit, Diaz and Steve Lerud.

Paulino hit .310 in 2006 as a rookie, but quickly fell out of favor with the new management team. His work ethic was too lax, his physique too soft, his defensive skills practically nonexistent.

“We had gotten to the point with Ronny where we felt it was better for him to move on,” GM Neal Huntington said. “This was a good fit for both of us.”

Jaramillo, who has two minor-league options left, was placed on the 40-man roster. He will compete during spring training with Diaz for the Pirates’ backup job.

Jaramillo, who was the Phils’ second-round pick in 2004, has solid defensive skills. But the Phillies rushed Jaramillo early in his minor-league career and had him skip a portion of Class A ball before arriving at Double-A Reading at age 23. His batting stats suffered as a result.

Jaramillo, 26, batted .266 with eight homers and 39 RBI last season for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He was rated the Phillies’ 10th-best prospect before the 2008 season.

In 2007, Jaramillo hit 271 for Triple-A Ottawa. His manager that season was current Pirates manager John Russell.

“We like the way he catches and the way he throws,” Huntington said. “And we think there’s some upside with the bat.”

Huntington said “six to eight” teams contacted the Pirates about Paulino. Talks with the Phillies had been sporadic for days, but things came together quickly today.

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Paulino traded to Philly

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LAS VEGAS — The Pirates just traded Ronny Paulino to the Phillies for catcher Jason Jaramillo.

Jaramillo, 26, is a switch-hitter who batted .266 with eight homers and 39 RBI last season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

GM Neal Huntington said Jaramillo will compete with Robinzon Diaz for the backup job during spring training.

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Bixler may be Miami-bound

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LAS VEGAS — Joe Frisaro, who covers the Marlins for mlb.com, reported that the Pirates could give up Brian Bixler, not Ronny Paulino, in exchange for shortstop Roberto Andino.

Either way, it appears a Somebody-for-Andino deal is what GM Neal Huntington was hinting about earlier today when he said a “small” trade was in the works. It could be finalized by the time these meetings wrap tomorrow morning.

The move would make sense for the Pirates. Bixler flopped last season when given a chance to play while Jack Wilson was on the disabled list. Management often refers to Luis Cruz as a viable backup, but never mention Bixler anymore.

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