Maholm, Hinske deals official at 2 p.m.


The Pirates will conduct a 2 p.m. news conference at PNC Park to announce the signings of Paul Maholm and Eric Hinske. Both players are expected to attend, although the weather could change those plans.

Maholm is getting a three-year deal with a club option for 2012. There is about $13 million in guaranteed salary, plus the cash for the option year. The deal buys out Maholm’s first year of free-agent eligibility.

Hinske will get a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, plus incentives. The Pirates will have to drop someone from the 40-man roster to accommodate Hinske.

Hinske and the team’s other free-agent signing, Ramon Vazquez, will form the core of the Pirates’ bench. Also in the mix for the three other backup spots are Steve Pearce, Robinzon Diaz or Jason Jaramillo, Luis Cruz, Andy Phillips and Jeff Salazar.


Maholm, Hinske deals nearly done


The Pirates will be busy tomorrow, finalizing contracts with pitcher Paul Maholm and outfielder Eric Hinske.

Maholm will get a three-year deal with a team option for 2012. That buys out all three of Maholm’s arbitration years and his first year of free agency. Financial terms of the deal were not immediately available.

Hinkse will get a one-year deal, woth $1.5 million contract plus incentives.

“We’re working through some final things,” GM Neal Huntington said.

Hinske, 31, can play first base, third base and both corner outfield spots. Last season, he hit .247 with 20 home runs and 60 RBI for Tampa Bay.

The Pirates’ lone unsigned player is center fielder Nate McLouth. His arbitration hearing is scheduled for Feb. 17.


The Mayor goes on the air


Sean Casey, an Upper St. Clair native who played for the Pirates in 2006, will join the MLB Network. An official announcement will come tomorrow.

Casey retired last week, ending a 12-year career which included stints with the Cleveland Indians (1997), Cincinnati Reds (1998-2005), Pirates, Detroit Tigers (2006-07) and Boston Red Sox (2008).

Casey was one of the nicest, most accessible players in the game and was nicknamed, “The Mayor.” He has a .302 career batting average with 1,531 hits in 1,405 games.


Dates set for arbitration hearings


Major League Baseball has set the dates for arbitration hearings for Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm and outfielder Nate McLouth. Maholm’s case will be heard Feb. 10 and McLouth’s Feb. 17.

Both players asked for $3.8 million in arbitration. The Pirates countered with an offer of $2.75 million for McLouth and $2.65 million for Maholm. If the cases go to hearings, the arbitrators must pick either one number or the other.

The two sides may continue to negotiate until the announcement of the arbitrators’ decision. The Pirates had hoped to sign McLouth and Maholm to multi-year deals, but chances of that happening are slim. Friday, during the annual Hot Stove Lunch with reporters, McLouth was pessimistic a long-term deal could get done. Maholm, however, said he was still very open to a longer deal and was hopeful something could be worked out before the hearing date.


Vasquez claimed off waivers


The Pirates today claimed pitcher Virgil Vasquez off waivers from the San Diego Padres.

The 26-year-old right-hander spent all of last season with Toledo, the Detroit Tiger’s Triple-A club. He went 12-12 with a 4.81 ERA, 115 strikeouts and 37 walks in 27 starts. He was the Tigers’ seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft.

Vasquez was claimed off waivers Oct. 28 by Boston, then claimed again Jan. 9 by San Diego.

Vasquez pitched in five games (three starts) for the Tigers in 2007, going 0-1 with a 8.64 ERA.

The addition of Vasquez fills the Pirates’ 40-man roster. The team also will have 17 non-roster invitees to sping training, which begins Feb. 13 in Bradenton, Fla.


Salary cap thoughts


I’ve already gotten a lot of feedback regarding the Pirates’ stance on a salary cap for MLB. As I was leaving Mass this morning, my phone chirped with the arrival of an e-mail from Larry DeGaris, the marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis. DeGaris had some additional thoughts on the issue:

“Interesting that officials in European soccer (UEFA) are discussing limiting transfer fees and salaries, and their system is a lot more free-market than U.S. sports.  I think you’ve hit on the major consequence of the financial crisis for (pro) sports — leagues are going to have to review their business models.  There’s been a lot of talk about what’s going to happen on the revenue side with the decline of corporate dollars, and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on the cost side.”

Here are some thoughts from reader Jon Plesce:

“Some of these small market teams had better be careful what the wish for. There’s no way the union will allow a salary cap without a corresponding basement. Then you’ll see some of these teams being sold because the owners will be forced to open their books to prove they’re investing the money back into player salaries. There goes their pocket money. Expect a work stoppage otherwise. When a team like the Marlins has a $22 million payroll and receives almost $30 million in (luxury tax),  there’s something wrong. The big-market teams, especially the Yankees, will want relief on their end. Their (luxury tax) money is helping keep a couple teams afloat.”

Finally, a short-and-sweet statement from faithful reader Mort Davis:

“Spending $4 million on a back-up anything makes as much sense as not leading the charge for a hard salary cap. Makes no sense!”

I believe Mort was referring to utility infielder Ramon Vazquez, who got a two-year, $4 million deal as a free agent.


Big turnout for PirateFest


Even with a Steelers rally across town Friday night and snow blanketing the city Sunday, total attendance for the three-day PirateFest was 15,127 — an increase of 4 percent over last year. It’s the third-highest tally since the event moved to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in 2004.

“Pirates fans have once again proven to be some of the most passionate in all of baseball,” president Frank Coonelly said.

The Pirates said sales of their new value-priced season-ticket plans were “popular” during PirateFest, but the team did not release any hard data regarding sales. Heading into the weekend, marketing director Lou DePaoli told me season-ticket renewals were off slightly but new purchases were trending slightly better than expected. Look for more details on this in tomorrow’s Trib.


Happy news, upbeat Q&As


Pirates officials were pleased to read today that Paul Maholm is optimistic about getting a contract done rather than going to arbitration. The two sides continue to talk, and one source put the odds of a multi-year deal being done in the next couple of weeks at better than 50-50.

The Q&A sessions for fans with players and management at PirateFest did not uncover any sexy, new details. The players’ session was especially upbeat, with both Ryan Doumit and Nyjer Morgan expressing confidence that a turnaround is near.

“I’m looking forward to seeing people wearing ‘Buctober’ T-shirts,” Doumit said. Morgan referred to it as “Buctoberfest.”

· Andy LaRoche was asked what his big brother Adam is doing differently this offseason to avoid his usual April batting funk.

“He’s doing the same thing he always does in the offseason: hunting,” Andy said. “I haven’t talked to the guy all winter. He’s been in a tree stand somewhere.”

· Top draft pick Pedro Alvarez arrived at minicamp last week a bit pudgy and out of shape. That caused one fan to ask point-blank, was Pedro worth it?

“Absolutely. Unequivocally,” GM Neal Huntington said. “He’s a special talent, a special hitter with power.”

· There were more questions about re-signing Doug Mientkiewicz, causing Huntington to half-jokingly wonder if Doug has become “the second-most popular player in Pittsburgh.” The answer was the same as yesterday: the door is still open, but a deal does not appear likely.

· President Frank Coonelly pointed out that Mientkiewicz signed just a few days before spring training last year. Coonelly said the team still was in touch with free agents and he would “be very surprised if we didn’t put together as good a bench as we had last year.”

· The Pirates have contacted Pedro Martinez, but it appears the aging, former standout is asking for too much money.

“We’re exploring any number of veteran starters,” Huntington said. “But we have to be sure that veteran starter can still pitch and perform. Even if we don’t sign a veteran starter, I feel very good about our pitching staff. We don’t have to sign a veteran starting pitcher.”


Straight talk from Coonelly, Huntington


The “Ask Pirates Management” sessions can be the most interesting — and most revealing — part of PirateFest, the one must-see portion of the weekend event. The fans’ questions, even when they are long, rambling and a bit whiny (as was the case once or twice tonight), always are asked from the heart. General manager Neal Huntington and, in particular, president Frank Coonelly usually offer more than blah-blah cliche-driven answers.

Highlights from tonight’s Q&A session on the opening night of PirateFest:

• As he announced the end of the red jersey and introduced the new, black alternate uniform, Coonelly got a round of applause (one of three strong outbursts in the hour-long span) when he said, “We decided to go back to the look of the past. We ARE Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh is black and gold.”

• Right out of the chute, Coonelly got the question he had to know was coming: Why trade Jason Bay and Xavier Nady? “It was a difficult decision to make with Bay,” Coonelly said. “He was the type of player we hope to develop and keep for a long time. We just didn’t have enough quality players to compete. Our long-term goal is not to trade away players as soon as they get good.”

• Huntington revealed the Pirates asked the Yankees this offseason what it would take to get Nady back in a trade: “They wanted three of the young pitchers back,” whom the Pirates got in the deal last July. Apparently, the Yanks would have been willing to let the Pirates keep Jose Tabata.

• While discussing runaway free-agent contracts, Coonelly said the Pirates in December made a $2.5 million offer to third baseman Dayan Viciedo, a Cuban defector. Viciedo, 19, wound up taking a four-year, $10 million deal from the Chicago White Sox.

• The second big round of applause came when someone asked why the Pirates have not re-signed Doug Mientkiewicz. Huntington: “If Doug feels we’re his best option and we feel he’s our best option, there’s still an opportunity for a deal there.” Translation: We’ve both moved on.

• Jack Wilson is noticeably absent from both the Winter Caravan and PirateFest. One fan wondered if it’s not a coincidence, given that Wilson’s in the final year of his contract and is the subject of trade rumors. Not so, said Coonelly, who noted that Wilson’s been a frequent traveler on the Caravan: “Jack’s carried his load. It’s time for some of the younger players to carry their loads.” Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are at PirateFest this year.

• Manager John Russell was applauded when he rose to the defense of slow-starter Adam LaRoche: “Everyone’s gonna struggle one month in a season. Adam’s happens to be the first month. I know a lot of people want to bench Adam. Adam LaRoche works harder than anybody, he busts his butt for this team, and I’m not gonna turn my back on that. Adam LaRoche is gonna play. He’s going to be an integral part of our offense.”

My favorite line of the night came from Coonelly: “Matt Weiters was the minor league player of the year. He should be a Pirate. We won’t make that mistake again.” I don’t believe that’s company-line-speak from the big man; I think it’s gospel. Pirates fans sure oughta hope so.


Looking better in black


The Pirates’ new uniforms feature sleeves on the home and away jerseys and a new black alternate jersey. From left are Nate McLouth (alternate), Matt Capps (home pinstripes), Nyjer Morgan (away sleeves) and Freddy Sanchez (home sleeves) at Piratefest Friday in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. (Photo by Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)

For the first time in 74 years, the block “P” is back on the Pirates’ jerseys.

It’s part of the design of the black alternate uniform, which was revealed this afternoon at the team’s annual Hot Stove Lunch with the media. The new jersey is, I think, a great upgrade over the red jerseys — which most folks, including many players — said looked like softball unis, that were used in 2007 and ’08.

The black, button-down tops, which coordinate with white pants, will be worn on selected home games. The Pirates also changed up their standard home and away unis by adding sleeves. The look is intended to be reminiscent of the 1970s era uniforms, without the garish colors and polyester feel. The last time the Pirates had sleeves was the 2000 season.

“We did it because it’s our history, our tradition,” president Frank Coonelly said. “We’re rebuilding that tradition.”

The Pirates will continue to use their sleeveless, pinstriped uniforms on Sunday home games. The batting practice jersey is unchanged, although the b.p. also had its red stripe removed.

What happened to all those useless red jerseys? There’s a store here at PirateFest which sells game-used equipment. If you want ‘em, there are several red jerseys hanging on the racks.