Busy day ahead for Morton

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BRADENTON, Fla. –Right-hander Charlie Morton will throw his first live batting practice today. He’s scheduled to toss BP again Saturday. About an hour before he climbs on the mound, Morton will square off against top-seeded Kevin Correia in the pitchers’ bunting tournament. “I’m focused. I’m ready,” Morton joked. The winner faces either Rudy Owens or Jeff Karstens in the third round.

»»» Clint Barmes won the “execution game” in which players got points for situational hitting — sacrifice bunts, slug bunts, shooting the four-hole, scoring from third and such. Barmes racked up 103 points, followed by Nate McLouth (100), Neil Walker and Josh Harrison (98 apiece)

»»» Paging Dr. Gooby … Trevor Gooby, the Pirates’ director of Florida operations, delivered a baby last night at McKechnie Field. During an event for fans at the ballpark, a woman slumped to the ground in obvious pain and Gooby ran over to see if he could help. With an ambulance on the way, Gooby asked stadium workers to gather towels and sterile gloves just in case. Moments later, the baby’s head emerged and Gooby completed the delivery. Both mother and the newborn are doing fine at Manatee Memorial Hospital.

»»» This morning, the entire team is gathered to hear minister and motivational speaker Joe Ehrmann, a former defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions.

»»» Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl will arrive in Bradenton today to huddle with local officials and business leaders. Ravenstahl is expected to attend the Pirates’ game Saturday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin.

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Comeback kid

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Jeff Clement said his left knee is holding up well so far in drills in spring camp.
Jeff Clement said his left knee is holding up well so far in drills in spring camp.

BRADENTON, Fla. — When Jeff Clement re-signed with the Pirates last winter, GM Neal Huntington was up-front about Clement’s chances of making the team — which are very, very low. Clement is a grinder, a down-to-earth guy who hasn’t succumbed to injuries, blown chances and too-high expectations. Huntington appreciates that, and figured Clement deserved a second look from the Pirates. If it doesn’t work out with this organization, perhaps he’ll catch the eye of another team that could use him. “We’ve been very open with Jeff that this is a chance not only to re-establish himself with the Pirates, but also in the industry,” Huntington said. “This is a chance to get back on track. He looks really good. He’s healthy, he’s using the whole field again instead of trying to pull everything. He’s in a very good spot.”

Clement and Aaron Pribanic are the only players still with the Pirates from the 2009 trade that sent Jack Wilson and Ian Snell to Seattle. Pribanic, a right-hander, won 10 games last season with Double-A Altoona.

When I talked with Clement today, he made it clear he’s going into spring training with his eyes open. With his knee finally recovered from the microfracture surgery in September 2010, he’s willing to go back to Indy and earn another shot at the majors. “At this point, it’s about getting used to the daily grind again because it’s either a 162-game season (in the majors) or 144 days (in the minors),” Clement said. “It’s a matter of staying healthy. I know that if I stay healthy, I will be productive.”

You can read more about Clement’s comeback bid in Tuesday’s Trib.

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A bit more about the draft budget

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What will it take for Andrew McCutchen to put his autograph on a multi-year contract?
What will it take for Andrew McCutchen to put his autograph on a multi-year contract?

BRADENTON, Fla. — The values MLB assigns to the various draft positions as part of the new bonus pool process are sure to be leaked each year. Certainly, agents will get hold of the data to use when negotiating signing bonuses. But GM Neal Huntington believes there still will be many players who are willing to sign for less than the set amount.

“Sure, there will be,” Huntington said. “It’s more about just trying to make sure that a $5-million player is drafted where he should be. It’s an effort to stop the high-dollar signs, not just the multi-million-dollar signs. The sixth-round pick who gets $500,000 and the 18th-rounder who gets $400,000 — that’s more who’s going to be impacted. There’s still going to be a large number of players who get a million dollars and $500,000 and above. That really hasn’t changed. It’s just how the money is allocated. One club can’t cluster six or seven of those guys, unless you’re really creative elsewhere in the draft.”

High school players likely will be affected the most. “The high school player who asks for $1 million who knows he’ll sign for $500,000, if he stays firm at $1 million, he’s going to be priced out of the draft,” Huntington said. “No longer can he be taken in the 42nd round and negotiate. He’s got to be taken in the first x-number of picks. If he’s not selected there, he’s priced himself out of the draft. It will be interesting from both perspectives. How realistic are guys with their figures. I think there’s going to be a lot of guys who end up in college this year who thought they were going to be drafted.”

That does not mean the Pirates will shift their draft strategy toward college players. “We certainly still like the high school player and believe our development environment is the best place for ,” Huntington said. “But college is also good at what they do. For some players, college is the right path. We’ll have to go through a couple cycles before the true implications are worked through. It’s going to be an interesting process.”

»»» I spotted RHP Brad Lincoln wearing a small brace on his right knee this morning in the clubhouse. “Just a little tendinitis,” Lincoln assured me. “I’m trying to keep it under control.”

»»» Here are the final results in last week’s Trib fan poll, in which we asked your reaction to the A.J. Burnett trade: I’m thrilled! He’ll make the team better got 571 votes (70 percent); I’m OK with it, but it won’t do much got 228 votes (28 percent); Yech! Bad trade actually got 21 votes (3 percent). This week’s query is whether you think the Pirates should do whatever it takes to sign Andrew McCutchen to a multi-year contract extension.

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Nutting: “Expectations are higher”

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Owner Bob Nutting met with the team for about a half-hour this morning in the cafeteria at Pirate City, then spoke with reporters. Some highlights:

»»» Nutting said the mood in camp as well as expectations for the season are different this year. “We’re talking about very high expectation levels for this season,” Nutting said. “I talked a little bit about the tremendous achievement the first part of (last) year, but also how we need and expect to finish this year, play all the way through. We’re here to win a National League Central championship. That’s the goal that we’re absolutely committed to getting done this year. They needed to hear that from me.”

»»» Nutting did not respond directly when asked if president Frank Coonelly, who faces charges stemming from a drunk-driving incident, will be subject to any internal discipline. “As a father with three daughters who are driving, I was very concerned, very disappointed and thankful that nobody was hurt.” Nutting went on to call Coonelly’s actions “unacceptable in every way.” The bottom line from Nutting: “We’re going to try to move forward from this point, but in no way minimizing my disappointment or his disappointment in the actions.”

»»» Nutting said the Pirates “no question could have done the A.J. Burnett trade for significantly fewer dollars.” The Pirates sent two low-level prospects to the Yankees and will take on $13 million of the $33 million Burnett is owed over the next two seasons. “We are all committed that we are not going to sacrifice our future or high-end prospects. If we need to stretch farther in dollars, it’s more appropriate and better for the long-term future of the club. I’m very comfortable with that choice.”

»»» The Pirates have added two games to their spring training schedule. They’re scheduled to play a B game March 10 against the Twins at Pirate City. The also will play the Netherlands at 1:05 p.m. March 12 in the St. Petersburg International Tournament at Al Lang Stadium.

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A bit more about AJ Burnett

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BRADENTON, Fla. — You’re going to read more (a lot more) about A.J. Burnett in tomorrow’s Trib, but here are a couple of teasers that wound up on the cutting room floor …

»»» Yankees manager Joe Girardi told the Trib he was impressed by how Burnett handled adversity in New York, and liked that the veteran pitcher was not afraid to mentor younger guys. “He kind of took (righty Ivan) Nova under his wing,” Girardi said. “He and Nova were kind of partners in their work.”

AJ Burnett waits his turn during bunting drills.
AJ Burnett waits his turn during bunting drills.

Nova made the Yanks’ starting rotation out of spring training last year, and pitched a gem in June against the Reds. But despite pitching well, Nova went back to the minors when Phil Hughes came off the DL. Some advice from Burnett made the demotion easier to accept, Nova said. “I remember we went to Toledo (for a Triple-A game), like eight hours in the bus, the day after the All-Star break I think it was,” Nova said. “It was hard. At that moment, I started thinking, ‘The first opportunity I have (to get back), I have to take advantage.’ A.J. was one of the guys that told me that. You’re going to have your opportunity to go back to the big leagues. And once you get it, keep showing that you’ll never be sent down again.”

Nova came back to the majors for good at the end of July. His 16 wins last year were the most by a Yankees rookie in 43 years. Nova plans to stay in touch with Burnett. “I have his number,” Nova said. “He’s a good man. Sometimes, when he’s mad, you try to make him laugh and whatever. And he does the same thing with me.”

»»» Burnett and Chris Simmons have known each other since they were 10 years old, growing up together in suburban Little Rock, Ark. “I’m an only child, so he’s my big brother, really,” Simmons told me in a phone conversation the other day.

However, they were not always best friends. “Growing up, we were always on opposite teams and we always hated each other,” Simmons said. “He was always the best player on the other team and vice versa, so it was always a competition between me and him. When I transferred to (Central Arkansas Christian High School), I walked into geometry class and there he was. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ And there was my seat, right next to him. ‘I’ve got to sit next to this clown?” But the next thing you know, we were pretty much inseparable.”

Simmons and Burnett have remained close over the years — even afgter Burnett accidentally broke Simmons jaw in 1995. They were playing catch on day after school and Burnett fired a fastball before Simmons was ready to catch it. Simmons’ jaw was shattered in three places. “I actually still have the ball,” Simmons said, laughing. “I made him sign it.”

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You can never have too many catchers

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates used eight catchers last season, an unusually long parade that was triggered major injuries to Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit. I asked GM Neal Huntington if there any lessons to be learned from the succession of backstops: “You can never prepare for the exception. Otherwise, you’re going to have 97 insurance policies. We had to adapt on the fly last year. When you lose three major league catchers in a short period of time, you’ve got to adapt on the fly. In a perfect world, you’ve got four guys who you’re comfortable bringing to the big league level. No team has four guys who you’re comfortable playing. You just don’t find a veteran catcher who’s willing to go to Triple-A and sit as a backup to be your fourth-string catcher. We got Rod Barajas. Michael McKenry and Jose Morales will split time (as the backup). We retained Eric Fryer, who can bounce around and play different positions. We’ll continue to explore if there’s something else out there.”

Barajas is busy learning the habits and preferences of each pitcher on the staff. It’s a lot to absorb. I asked him about the give-and-take process that a pitcher and catcher go through as they try to adjust to each other: “I always like working off them. I ask what they like — where they like me to set up, how early or how late, do they like seeing an early target? I’m here to adjust to what they like. At the same time, I’m not going to do something that makes me feel uncomfortable behind the plate. If something like that comes up, we’ll talk about it and try to find a happy medium. I’m here to work for them. That’s my job and my No. 1 priority.”

»»» A.J. Burnett’s speedboat — a sleek, muscular beauty — is parked behind the Pirate City complex this morning. Some of the players were joking that Daniel McCutchen was going to get it as payback for giving Burnett his uniform No. 34.

Jeff Karstens will throw his first batting practice session on Saturday.
Jeff Karstens will throw his first batting practice session on Saturday.

»»» Pitchers will begin throwing batting practice tomorrow. James McDonald, Brad Lincoln, Erik Bedard and Jo-Joe Reyes will be the first ones on the mounds. Burnett, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia will throw Saturday. They’ll throw two “innings” of about 15 pitches each, 35 pitches max. Charlie Morton is a little bit behind — he will throw a bullpen session Friday and another Sunday, and is scheduled to toss his first batting practice on Feb. 29.

»»» Gorkys Hernandez and Gustavo Nunez are in the house this morning. That leaves infielder Anderson Hernandez as the only player who hasn’t checked in yet.

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Almost a full house

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BRADENTON, Fla. — All but three players have reported to camp. One of them, shortstop Gustavo Nunez, is on the 60-day DL and likely won’t check in for a while yet. Anderson Hernandez and Gorkys Hernandez have until Friday, when the first full-squad workout is held, to get here. Andrew McCutchen arrived this morning and was on the fields all day. Chase d’Arnaud walked into the clubhouse about a half-hour after position players finished their workouts today.

»»» A reader Tweeted a request for a photo of Pedro Alvarez. I didn’t get any decent shots of him, so would you settle for a video from today’s workout instead? If so, click here:  http://youtu.be/_UP_ujQ-0aQ

»»» There are no bullpen sessions scheduled for Thursday at Pirate City. Pitchers will throw batting practice Friday. Erik Bedard, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Joel Hanrahan, Jason Grilli and Evan Meek will be among the first group. A.J. Burnett is slated to toss batting practice Saturday.

»»» Major league camp will move to McKechnie Field after the March 1 workout, which will allow the minor leaguers to re-take full control of Pirate City. The Black-Gold instrasquad game is March 2 at McKechnie.

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McDonald kept on going

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BRADENTON, Fla. — As the 2011 season wound down, Pirates management mulled pulling James McDonald out of the starting rotation to avoid overworking his arm. But instead of wearing out, McDonald kept chugging along. “We thought we might have to sit him down, back him away,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “But that never came into play. It was like he said, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to find a way to do this.’ ”

J-Mac wound up making 31 starts and tossing 171 innings, both career highs. More importantly, McDonald showed solid signs of progress. “We saw pitch efficiency increase,” Hurdle said. “He’s aware of the importance of controlling the running game. The breaking ball can be a weapon when the fastball command is solid. The desire on his part to get deeper (into games). Reading swings on the mound. He also improved on tempo. That’s another issue that flared up from time to time, when traffic would get on base, sometimes he got very methodical and almost counter-productive. There were a lot of lessons learned and now we’re looking for continued development and sustainable success.”

Catcher Tony Sanchez finds a seat next to Manny Sanguillen and takes a breather during a bullpen session.
Catcher Tony Sanchez finds a seat next to Manny Sanguillen and takes a breather during a bullpen session.

»»» Andrew McCutchen, who was on campus at Pirate City a bit last week, returned to the clubhouse this morning. He’ll participate in drills today, two days before position players are required to report for the first full-squad workout.

»»» ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight Goodyear Express Tour” will stop at 11 teams’ spring training camps in Florida between now and March 6. ESPN decided to skip four Grapefruit League teams: the Orioles, Twins, Astros … and the Pirates.

»»» There were 1,002 votes cast in our last Pirates fan poll, in which we asked what it will take for the team to have more success landing free agents. The results: More wins, 582 votes (58 percent); more talent, 211 votes (21 percent); more money, 141 votes (14 percent); more charisma, 50 votes (5 percent); more fans, 18 votes (2 percent). This week’s poll asks for your reaction to the A.J. Burnett trade.

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Burnett speaks, McLouth returns

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKNBUqk-ozY

BRADENTON, Fla. – A.J. Burnett started driving to Florida on Saturday not really knowing where he would end up — back in Tampa with the Yankees, in Bradenton at Pirates spring training camp or perhaps on a plane to Arizona to join the Indians. He got the answer via a phone call from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.

Monday morning, Burnett met with reporters at Pirate City, ready for his first day with his new team. “It got done and I’m looking forward to this,” Burnett said. “It’s going to be a fresh start. It’s going to be fun. I’m going back to the National League, where I can hit and bunt and get the joy back into the game.”

»»» Burnett will wear uniform No. 34. Daniel McCutchen switched to No. 25. How much is the number going to cost Burnett? “I don’t know yet,” Burnett said, grinning. “I’ve got to tease him, play with him a little bit.”

»»» To clear a roster spot for Burnett, infielder Gustavo Nunez was placed on the 60-day disabled list due to a right ankle injury. Two months ago, the Pirates claimed Nunez from the Tigers in the Rule 5 draft.

»»» I bumped into Nate McLouth in the clubhouse early this morning. He hasn’t changed from three years ago, when he last played for the Pirates. “It feels great to be back,” McLouth said.

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Spring training: Day 1

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Pitching coach Ray Searage addresses players minutes ago before the first workout.
Pitching coach Ray Searage addresses players minutes ago before the first workout.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Here’s a quick update from the first day of spring training, as pitchers and catchers walk onto the fields for their opening workouts:

»»» Reliever Chris Resop (illness) and catcher Ramon Cabrera (missed flight connection) are the only players among those required to be here who will miss today’s session.

»»» Righty A.J. Burnett is in town to have a physical exam, but the trade is not expected to be officially announced until tomorrow morning. I’ve heard he will wear uniform No. 34.

»»» GM Neal Huntington met with reporters a few minutes ago. He declined to talk about Burnett specifically, but did allude to the upcoming addition to the starting rotation. “We always want to make sure we have depth. We’ll have some competition in spring training, and it’s always better to have too many starters than not enough starters.”

»»» Huntington said everyone arrived in good physical shape. The Pirates hired new trainers over the winter. “Guys have worked hard this offseason. When you make a transition with your strength and conditioning staff, you’re a little bit uneasy, but our guys have hit the ground running. They’ve gotten to know the players and worked hard to build relationships with them.”

»»» Could left field become a platoon with Alex Presley and Nate McLouth? “We’re going to give Alex every chance in the world to show us his last two years in the minor leagues and what he did when healthy at the major league level (was for real). He’s an exciting player. He can be that ‘second center fielder’ in left field and he can be dynamic at the top of the lineup. But, at the same time, we signed Nate with the idea that he’s going to get a lot of plate appearances. And the better Nate plays, the more he’s going to play.”

»»» Huntington: “There’s no doubt in our minds we’re ready to take a big step forward. How big will depend on how hard we work every day, every single inning, every single pitch.”

»»» Charlie Morton’s rehab “has gone about as well as we could’ve expected,” Huntington said, without elaborating. “We still have some hurdle’s to (clear). Charlie’s been off the mound. He will be out in PFP activity. Now, it’s just a matter of building up the arm properly.”

»»» Burnett’s arrival means that, if Morton is not ready until late April, Brad Lincoln will not be needed to make a spot start. The former first-round draft pick’s future is a bit clouded, though — it’s not far-fetched to view Lincoln as a future reliever. “If there’s an injury (to a starter) in spring training, we have complete confidence Brad is ready to step in,” Huntington said. “Our goal for Brad right now is to compete to make this club (as a starter). If that doesn’t happen, then we begin to address what happens next. Is it in the rotation or the bullpen? We still like Brad Lincoln as a starting pitcher, whether it’s this year or next year.”

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