November 2012

Bucs get their man, that Ray Liotta look-alike (Martin).

Acting quickly to shore up their biggest hole, the Pirates on Thursday reached agreement with catcher Russell Martin on a two-year, $17 million contract.

The agreement, pending a physical of the 29-year-old veteran before it can become official, was first reported by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, and subsequently confirmed by a team source.

Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington simply told me that the two sides were “still working through the process” and that he had “nothing to report at this point.”

That’s typical pre-physical GM speak. Martin is expected in Pittsburgh on Friday for those tests. Two weeks later, look for him at PirateFest.

The Bucs, seeking a veteran to replace Rod Barajas and to pair with instrumental back-up Michael McKenry, entered what turned out to be a brief scramble for Martin a few days ago.

The Rangers, the Mariners and Martin’s club for the last two seasons, the Yankees, all were hot on his trail. Reports of Martin entering the market seeking a four-year deal for an annual $10 million may have scared off early suitor. The Pirates had emerged as frontrunners due to the perception Huntington was willing to go three years on a guaranteed contract.

His ability to secure Martin, then, with a two-year deal amounts to a coup, and may be a reflection of the belief that Martin has a positive impression of the Pirates’ future — doubtless formed with the help of another former member of the Yankees, pitcher A.J. Burnett, who considered his first season with the Pirates a good experience.

In Martin, the Pirates get a receiver with a reputation not unlike that of Barajas, who calls a solid game with a good rapport with pitchers, with occasional flashes of power at bat.

However, Martin is seven years younger, with an added defensive weapon Barajas lacked: An arm good enough to deter runners. In 2012, Martin threw out 20 of 83 runners. Between them, Barajas and McKenry nailed fewer (19) in 173 total attempts.

Offensively, Martin does not immediately come off as an upgrade over Barajas, who batted .206 with an OPS of .625 in 321 at-bats.

Martin hit .211, but had nearly twice as many extra-base hits (21 homers and 18 doubles) for an OPS of .713.

The most distressing part of Martin’s offensive resume is his steady decline since earning the only Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in his sophomore season with the Dodgers in 2007, when he hit .293, with 19 homers and 87 RBIs, all still career highs.

His average has declined every subsequent season, to that low of .211 in 2012. However, Martin was a finalist for the 2012 Gold Glove that was awarded to Baltimore’s Matt Wieters.

He also is a winner: When he starts behind the plate, his teams have a record of 112 games above .500.


Could Bucs double-up on d’Arnauds?

Could the Pirates’ search for catching help lead to a reunion of the Brothers d’Arnaud?

Yes, but only if the Bucs decide that Michael McKenry has the stuff to be their primary receiver in 2013, leaving them shopping for a back-up. Then they could make a move for Travis d’Arnaud, one of three catchers the Blue Jays are willing to deal in the aftermath of the 12-player blockbuster with the Marlins, in which one of their acquisitions was John Buck.

Besides Buck, who could be flipped, and d’Arnaud, Toronto is also listening on incumbent starter J.P. Arencibia.

d’Arnaud of course is the younger brother of Chase d’Arnaud, and considered a hotter prospect. Pittsburgh’s d’Arnaud beat kid bro to the Majors — he appeared in 54 games with the Bucs in 2011-12 — but Travis is ranked by many evaluators among the game’s top 20 prospects.

Travis was the No. 1 Draft choice in 2007 of the Phillies, who dealt him to Toronto in the December 2009 move for Roy Halladay. He has begun to live up to that potential the last two seasons, totaling 37 homers and 130 RBIs while hitting well over .300 in 180 games on the Double-A and Triple-A levels.

Last season, his first in Triple-A, d’Arnaud hit .333 for Las Vegas, with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in 67 games.

Yeah but, you ask, how’s his arm? The Bucs need a gun behind the plate, especially from someone who would come in as a reserve and occasional late-game sub?

Answer: Not bad. He has consistently thrown out one of every four baserunners, about average, and last season threw 12-of-40, or 30 percent.

D-backs call out Bauer? NOT news to Cole

Somehow, Gerrit Cole AND Trevor Bauer morphed into Cole versus Bauer.

There’s a great rivalry brewing. And we don’t really yet know the full story of why. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the Pirates’ and the D-backs’ right-handers will hook up on a Major League mound, and it will be very personal.

They were UCLA’s No. 1 and No. 1A aces, and while they were developing into top picks in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, they were also developing a dislike for each other. It became so bitter that as they both went through their first Major League Spring Trainings earlier this year, they flatly declined to comment on each other’s situations.

I don’t know the roots of the dispute — but I imagine somewhere Cole was nodding knowingly last week when rumors surfaced that the D-backs were already shopping Bauer because his attitude during his brief big-league baptismal last summer had been a turn-off.

The D-backs have since denied those reports — but Arizona club president Derrick Hall’s very reasons for NOT shopping Bauer are revealing.

“He realizes he made mistakes, and I applaud that. That shows a tremendous amount of maturity on his part,” Hall said.

Mistakes? What kind of mistakes could a 21-year-old possibly have made to invite such admonishment? How did he find the time, in the three mere weeks he spent with the D-backs?

There are clues that after torching the Minors, Bauer showed up with a bit of conceit. He was stubbornly uncoachable, and even had fits with veteran Arizona catcher Miguel Montero. It was bad enough that Bauer reportedly had to explain himself and apologize to his Arizona teammates to be welcomed back in their graces.

The Bucs and the D-backs only hope this can be a continuing story for, oh, 15 years. When Cole became Pittsburgh’s and the nation’s No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft and Bauer followed at No. 3, the Bruins matched Bob Horner and Hubie Brooks of the 1978 Arizona State Sun Devils as the highest-picked collegiate teammates in the same Draft.

Their paths diverged interestingly in 2012, with Bauer reaching the Majors just as Cole got to Double-A. That was the middle step in Cole’s gradual progression, Single-A through Triple-A, with a cumulative 9-7 record and 2.80 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 132 innings. Bauer went 12-2 between Double-A and Triple-A, with a 2.42 ERA and 157 punchouts in 130 1/3 innings.

Stay tuned.

(Jason) Bay watch? Unlikely, even with power shortage

One of the things Pirates cynics harp on — endlessly — is the success of players after they leave Pittsburgh. Guys like the 2012 versions of Ryan Ludwick and Nate McLouth are their ammunition.

We hear less about the other side of that coin. About moves that were prescient. Those are conveniently left off the see-saw of management decisions.

Yeah, instead of flourishing, some just flush after the Bucs. Folks still can’t let go of the mid-2009 fire sale of Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, and how little the Bucs got in return. They don’t  concede that injuries have limited Sanchez to 196 games in 3 1/2 seasons with the Giants, or that Wilson didn’t hit higher than .249 for a couple teams he shuffled through and now is in premature retirement.

Jason Bay? The two-time NL All-Star had one decent season in Boston following his mid-2008 trade but, pushed by a nasty concussion suffered in mid-2010 against Dodger Stadium’s bullpen gate, has pretty much fallen off the baseball map. The Mets have just negotiated an early termination of his contract, making him a free agent.

Bay is only 34, but don’t look for the Pirates to pull another “McLouth” and bring him back. Not even on a non-guaranteed, make-good Minor League deal. GM Neal Huntington can’t afford the snide reaction such a move could provoke.

Of course, Bay at his healthy-and-productive peak is someone the Bucs need: An impact corner outfielder. Even with Garrett Jones doing half of his 2012 damage while playing right field, Pirates left and right fielders combined for 34 homers and 114 RBIs.

Only two NL teams had fewer homers from their outfield corners, and none had lower run production. Even the Astros, who also had 34 homers, got 133 RBIs from the corners.

Of course, there is more than one way to do damage, and the Giants’ World Series title may influence imitators. The Giants got only 28 homers from their corner outfielders (the Dodgers, with 29, were the other team with fewer than the Bucs) but proved that fundamentals and opportunism count for more.

The Giants succeeded by overall scoring 34 more runs than the Bucs while hitting 67 fewer home runs. San Francisco did 25 percent of its scoring via the homer, while the Bucs scored a 40 percent in that regard.

Which team’s offensive philosophy was more beneficial?

Another reason not to look for Jason Bay in Bradenton in a few months.

Nutting calls off the dogs … er, SEALS

Bob Nutting broke his “silence” today by holding a media conference. Can’t call it a news conference, because there was no news.

This is what we “learned:”

A. Nutting was upset over the Bucs’ August and September (yeah, he and the rest of Western Pennsylvania).

B. Everyone is keeping his job (including Neal Huntington, so he doesn’t have to cancel his reservation in Palm Springs for the General Managers Meetings that begin Wednesday).

C. The Pirates can keep winning Gold Gloves — but Purple Hearts are out (all that paramilitary training stuff will be toned down although, presumably, Buccos players can still do their traditional hang-out with Navy SEALS on their annual visit to San Diego).

Really, what did anyone expect the club’s embattled chairman to do? He wasn’t about to give in to frustrated critics and dynamite his front office in the wake of a 22-game improvement in two years — the Majors’ third-best in that stretch. Nor could he continue to sign off on those controversial discipline-forming actics that unleashed a witch hunt.

Calling an end to Pirate City’s so-called “Hell Week” was just a convenient compromise.

While he was at it, bet Nutting also told Kyle Stark, no more rebel-rousing emails, please.

Stargell wins again; Pops mails it in

For a team that has not had a winning record on the field in 20 years, the Pirates are certainly doing a lot of winning off the field.

I’m not even referring to Andrew McCutchen, who continued cleaning up at the awards window yesterday by taking home NL Outstanding Player of the honors, as voted by peers in their union’s Players Choice balloting. Add that to his Gold Glove and Wilson Pirates Defensive Player of Year Awards.

But how about Willie Stargell? Eleven years after his untimely passing, and three decades after his last at-bat, Pops is as hot at the P.O. Box as he was in the batter’s box.

Remember when the U.S. Postal Service issues its Forever All-Star stamps in mid-summer? Stargell was included in the initial release along with three other all-time greats. USPS has been tracking sales, the numbers are in — and guess which stamp has proven most popular?

The sales standings:

  • Willie Stargell: 8,220,355
  • Ted Williams: 8,209,035
  • Joe DiMaggio: 8,065,855
  • Larry Doby: 7,8454,015.

How about that? Fathers — show that list to your kids. Yet another reminder of this franchise’s rich history. And it’s about time the present caught up with the past.

Jay Bell knows clutch

New Pirates hitting coach Jay Bell, who spent most of his 18-year career as a No. 2 hitter, is remembered as an outstanding “situational hitter.” Someone capable of delivering whatever a particular game-situation called for.

Sacrifice bunt? Had 159 of them, including back-to-back seasons with 30-plus. Hit-and-run? He could turn his bat into a divining rod. Millionaire-maker? Done.

It was ironic for me to be back in Arizona when the Bucs announced the hiring of Bell because this was the scene of his greatest moment. Actually, the moment belonged to one Gylene Hoyle, but Bell made it happen.

July 11, 1999. Sunday, the last game-day prior to the All-Star break. Sixth inning of an Interleague Game against Oakland in what at the time was known as Bank One Ballpark. Two outs, bases loaded, 3-3 tie. Bell steps into the batter’s box.

Just like Hoyle had predicted he would. Or, at least hoped: By lot, she had been chosen to participate in a promotion by the second-year franchise, whereby contestants got to pick the player and the inning for a grand slam. Have everything go right, and you win a million bucks. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everybody. But no one had gotten there this way.

The D-backs radio guys had set up the details of the stakes even before the inning began — that’s the whole idea behind these promotional gimmicks. A Gylene Hoyle, from Chandler. Jay Bell. Tony Womack — another former Buccos infielder — walks to load the bases… and here comes Bell.

To that point, Bell was hitless in 12 at-bats that series. He runs the count full against A’s righty Jimmy Haynes, fouls off a couple pitches — and lines the next one into the left-field seats.

Sitting behind the Arizona dugout, Hoyle and her family hyperventilate. The 36,632 in-house go nuts, because they all knew the stakes.

Incredibly, so did Bell. He was fully aware of what he was swinging for before even going to bat.

“There was no question I wanted to hit a home run there,” Bell told The Associated Press. “I saw her on our dugout before the game and knew the whole situation. Most of the fans did, too. It was a lot of fun.”

Talk about clutch. That’s an element the ’12 Pirates, who lived by the long ball, sorely lacked. They better pay close attention to their new hitting mentor.

Odds are, Bucs are in middle of road for ’13 World Series

The people who handicap baseball pennant races (among other things) do not seem to be as down on the Pirates’ prospects as much of the media and some of the more pessimistic fans.

An online site has listed the odds on the Bucs winning the 2013 World Series at 30-1. And that is a far cry from just making the playoffs, of course.

Hardly definitive — not to mention premature, considering the entire offseason of rosters changes is still ahead of us — but, for comparative purposes, at least interesting.

Among the 30 Major League clubs, the Pirates are No. 19 — sandwiched between a White Sox team that led the AL Central for much of last season and the Blue Jays, Among the other teams considered longer shots than the Bucs are the huge-market Mets and the Padres, who will be coming off one of the hotter closing kicks in the NL.

On what basis could experts like the direction of the Bucs? Well, back-to-back second-half collapses notwithstanding, you can’t ignore that they’ve improved each of the last two seasons, from 57 wins in 2010 to 79 in 2012.

Only two teams, one in each league, have done better than that composite spike of 22 wins — not surprisingly, the Nationals (plus-29) and the Orioles (plus-27). And only four others have also shown improvement each of the last two seasons: the Mariners (plus-14), the Angels (9), the Dodgers (6) and the Royals (5).

Obviously, no team has had as much room for improvement. The Bucs’ 57 wins in 2010 were four fewer than anyone else’s (Mariners). Still, progress is progress.

Fort Apache, The ‘Burgh

I vaguely recall an early-’80s movie about a New York police station coming under waves of attack. “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” I think it was, starring Paul Newman. No soon does one siege get repelled — here came another assault.

Anyway – that’s kinda how I see the Pirates front office in these days following yet another maddening finish to an unsatisfactory season. Frustration to the 20th power? Critics of Neal Huntington, Kyle Stark and Frank Coonelly — and of Bob Nutting, for not doing anything about them — are out of control and venomous and loud.

But are there other voices out there? No one is happy about the Pirates’ morass, sure. However, is there a silent majority of true fans whose disappointment is tempered with reality and whose anger stops short of, say, a lynch-mob mentality? Who weren’t thrilled because another Pirates losing season confirmed their own predictions? Who do not attack with the fervor of Navy SEALS?

I wondered about that a while ago, and got some interesting responses. Caveat: Some of these views are a month old, so may have changed in the interim. But, a sampling:

“The comments and writings of much of the fan base and some of the journalists who cover the team have ruined the season for me at least as much as the play of my beloved Pirates.  Too many people are just way too reactionary.  And they never learn. … and now are blind with rage that we’re finishing pretty much exactly where our talent level and experience indicate we should.  Neil Huntington and everybody else apparently deserve to be fired based on our play over the past two weeks. I get it.  So I can understand why everybody wants scapegoats.  But following the team is so much more enjoyable when your fellow fans don’t form a lynch mob every 30 seconds.” — Corey.

“I am 17 years old and will graduate high school this spring having never seen a pirates winning season! Unbelievable. … I believe in Clint Hurdle as our manager but I must say I’m still not set on Huntington. I think his time is up. I still recall after our mini fire sale in 2007 or 2008, trading away Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson for what so far appears to be absolutely nothing, he said if this team was not a winner by the year 2012, he should be out. And, we are not winners.” — Sammy

“This season was heat breaking. I felt like someone was slowly torturing me and making me watch this collapse but yet I couldn’t look away.  I believe this season of disappointment belongs to Clint and the coaching staff and also our trade deadline moves. … I’m 23 years old and can not remember the Pirates last winning season so these last two years have been hard to watch. But through it all I’m still a Buccos fan and a believer. Go Bucs!!” — Michael

“Way too much blame is being put on the front office/baseball operations staff (Huntington, Stark, Smith, Coonelly to some extent) for this season’s epic collapse and the 2nd in a row. In the wake of the whole Kyle Stark fiasco over player development (SEALS, Hoka Hey, military mindset) and then Coonelly saying that no changes will be made to the upper hierarchy. The fan base went absolutely crazy without even fathoming to think before they react.” — Ross

“The fact that the Pirates are at an unfair advantage with salary and location makes it harder to stay competitive. This year had a different feel to it. … The icing on the cake was when upper management was afraid to make any bold decisions. … Sure the Pirates might be more competitive and talented in the next year or two, but without any changes it’s going to be the same old song and dance.” — Jason

“Excited 4 direction of club but disappointed in slide. Made some moves. Feel we had shot with players we had –more than in past.” — @MikeyHeld

“I wonder what they’ve done to earn my loyalty (and $). Because I have fond memories of a tm that won 33 yrs ago? No more.” — @RiddlerPGH

“I love the Pirates, but it is clear they can’t evaluate talent & Hurdle has troubles with player selection. New blood, please.” — @jimlogrando

“I think … is overreacting & reading too much into NH’s 9/23 radio quote, and his many minions are reliably following suit.” — @MattGrayPgh

“stunned, heartbroken, optimistic. In that order” — @Zach_Vani

“Outrage makes me think people are talking about a team like the Yankees with a large payroll & high preseason expectations. … Yes, I’m upset by the collapse. No, I don’t want everyone fired. I’d prefer a calm, rational approach to solving the problem.” — @marc98116

“feel like there needs to be some form of accountability for end to this season, would like to see ownership/mgmt straight shoot.” — @megseese

“The season was, for the most part, very entertaining.” — @KevinMcEldowney

“20 games better in 2 years is awesome. drafts have been successful. Collapse this year shows its time to spend on the bench.” — @jmohlman

“my opinion may be the minority, but way too much blame is being put on the front office/baseball operations guys.” — @rinsana11