February 2013

What might it take to lock up Walker, Alvarez?

The subject of contract extensions continues as the elephant in the locker room of the Pirates, who dearly want to retain control over the team’s engine.

It began with Jose Tabata in August 2011, GM Neal Huntington got his a month later, it continued with Andrew McCutchen last February and last week even Clint Hurdle got in on it.

So all eyes have fallen on Neil Walker, and possibly Pedro Alvarez.

But it may not happen any time soon for either — and not necessarily because of any foot-dragging by the front office. Rather, those players may not be gung-ho about getting locked into long-term contracts now.

These are purely my thoughts, no inside or outside sourcing, but  they are worth considering.

Walker would most certainly love security with his hometown team, but is in a unique situation. As the odd four-time arbitration guy thanks to Super Two status, he’s in line for three more substantial raises that would take a major preemptive offer to skirt.

The second baseman recently agreed to a $3.3 million pact for 2013, his first experience with arbitration. There is a predictable blueprint for that proces and, with that starting point, Walker stands to earn a total of about $23 million the next three seasons.

Very few Super Twos have gone through all four years of arbitration. Philadelphia second baseman Jimmy Rollins signed for $3.85 million in his second year of arbitration, then agreed to a five-year, $40 million deal in June 2005. But Rollins was 26 at the time; Walker already turns 28 late this season.

 To make it work with Alvarez, the Pirates might have to dramatically over-write and bump up one of the most team-friendly contracts around. This is a guy who is earning $700,000 this season after jacking 30 homers last year — and who would earn the same $700,000, the option still on the books, next season.

If the contract runs out as-is, at the end of it Alvarez would be only two years removed from free agency. At that point, he might prefer going through arbitration those two years, then hitting free agency.

Alvarez knows Alex Rodriguez is either out or well on his way to being out, and that the Yankees have no long-term solutions at third base. The New York native would love playing in the Bronx, and the Yankees would love having his left-handed power swing in the shadow of Yankee Stadium’s right-field porch.

We’ll see.

Martin withdraws from Team Canada over SS issue

Russell Martin has withdrawn from the World Baseball Classic.

Martin made the late decision to skip competing with Team Canada over both that team’s and the Pirates’ resistance to allowing him to play shortstop in The Classic.

“They both were uneasy about that,” Martin said, “and I simply didn’t want to catch. It’s just too much grind. The catcher’s out there the whole game, and it just takes your body so long to recover from catching 20 innings or so.”

Martin, signed to a two-year, $17 million as a free agent to be the Bucs’ new receiver, had looked forward to an opportunity to play short in the international tournament. When that became unlikely, he chose to withdraw from Team Canada and concentrate on getting ready for the season.

“I feel sorry for (Team Canada), but sometimes you just have to look out for what’s best for you. You have to make a personal choice. But I’m really sorry for how all this went down.”

 

Camptown Races, Feb. 23: Out on a limb

With apologies to Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, my Spring Training picks to click:

Left-hander Kris Johnson — I just like this guy’s stuff, control and hard-edged mentality. He’s paid a lot of dues, and just seems primed to be noticed.

Outfielder Jose Tabata — Remember him? He’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him (none of that best-shape-of-his-life meme) and will respond to the challenge of having to reclaim his name.

As for the far-off season, Starling Marte is not only the one to watch, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him. The Pirates have brought him along perfectly, and he is about to blow it up. Yeah, Mike Trout-esque.

Exit Cole and Taillon; Bring in the noise

Remarkable how much “louder” today’s intrasquad game became once Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon left the mound.

Batters started making solid contact, even on outs. The second batter after Cole departed, Ivan De Jesus, tripled. The third, Starling Marte, connected for a drive halfway to Clearwater.

In the two innings each by Cole and Taillon, batters were on the total defensive. And in the hole: Cole started off each of the seven batters he faced with strikes; Taillon was 5-for-8.

Cole also wasted no time flashing his mean streak. His third pitch sailed in on Marte, who was swinging and fouled off the ball near his hands, which he shook for a few seconds, wondering where that nest of hornets had come from.

Trying to downplay this early look, manager Clint Hurdle said, “Those first two pitchers pitched very well today. But it is what it is — the first game, two innings in an intrasquad game.”

There will be more. In the coming week, Cole and Taillon should both get their first taste of big-league competition in Grapefruit League outings. … 

Alex Presley, the triples-machine with seven in limited play last season, should’ve started off in style. But his first-inning drive atop the left-field line was called foul by the faraway plate umpire.   The game was worked by a two-man crew, one behind the plate and another at first (when the bases were empty). … 

Arriving in the McKechnie Field clubhouse for the first time, relocating from Pirate City, the Bucs were greeted by the annual “Feel Good” video on the big screen: A long loop in which every one of their swings produced a home run, and every one of their pitches punched someone out. That was the Pirates’ view of a perfect world.

Hurdle gets an extension — and a mandate

Pirates club chairman Bob Nutting, who on Tuesday gave manager Clint Hurdle an extension through 2014 with an option for another season, but who also signed off on John Russell being fired after 2010 with a year left on his deal:

“We must take a step forward. We expect to win. I expect to win, Frank (club president Frank Coonelly) expects to win. Neal (general manager Neal Huntington) expects to win. And the idea that an extension is a free pass is exactly the message that I would not want to send, and exactly the message that Clint would not want to hear.

“We’ve absolutely shown that we’re willing to make a change if we need to, irrespective of contract terms.So Clint and everyone in the organization knows that.”

*  * *

The usual slate of the Tee-Shirt Fridays is on the Pirates’ schedule. I assume all the different designs are taken care of, but if the brains behind the very popular promotion get stuck, might I make a suggestion?

You get new closer Jason Grilli to pose with The Fort.

Above the pic: Mac N’ Cheese.

Below: You Know You Love It!

With one of those curled-into-a-smile pieces of macaroni, yellow on black.

I’d buy that T. Would you?

Going Campy, Feb 19: First hiccup — Karstens

Jeff Karstens came into camp determined to grow into a more reliable pitcher by “listening to my body.”

Tuesday morning, that body told him to take a step back.

The right-hander was scratched from his scheduled turn to throw batting practice after he complained of “a little soreness” in front of his upper shoulder, in “the biceps area.”

Anybody else, the development could’ve been easily shaken off. It is early. The past couple of mornings have been unseasonably chilly, not ideal throwing weather.

But this, after all, is Karstens. He could extract only 90 2/3 innings out of his body last season. That fragility, in fact, is the very reason the Pirates at first non-tendered him, then delayed bringing him back on a new contract until Jan. 17.

“I just want to play it smart. It doesn’t make any sense to push it,” he said. “I’ll still play catch (on flat ground). We just want to be smart about this, wait a couple days,” he said. “It’s not September. I don’t want another Arizona.”

Karstens referred to his start last April 17 against the Diamondbacks, which he had to leave after one inning with tightness in the shoulder. Including a strained-groin glitch in his rehab program, he didn’t resurface until late June.

Karstens’ timeout, even briefly, dials up the already-intense competition for spots in the starting rotation.

Going Campy, Feb. 18: Hurdle’s contract extended

Clint Hurdle will get an extended chance to see through the rebirth of the Pirates, who will soon announce an extension to his contract as manager.

Hurdle, 55, is approaching the final year of the three-year contract he’d signed in November 2010 and will have one season added to that deal, with an option for 2015.

The club did not have a comment on the extension, which was confirmed by an MLB source, but is expected to make an official announcement on Wednesday to coincide with chairman Bob Nutting’s annual visit to the Pirate City Spring Training camp.

“We have been in discussion,” Hurdle said following Monday’s workouts, calling the extension “empowering” and sounding like indeed it is a done deal.

“We love Pittsburgh, absolutely,” Hurdle said, including wife and kids in that sentiment. “This is your opportunity to be a small part of a group accomplishing a goal. From the first day I took this job, I said I wanted to reconnect the city with its baseball team.

“There’s still unfinished business, we haven’t yet gotten where we want to get, but I think we did re-ignite the fanbase to some degree.”

Hurdle’s Pirates reached a peak of 16 games over .500 last season, when they sported a winning record for a stretch of 107 days through Sept. 18, though ultimately finished with a losing record for a 20th consecutive season.

However, the 79 wins marked an improvement over the 72 wins of 2011, which came following 105 losses in the season prior to Hurdle’s appointment.

 Finish? Hurdle will get a shot to live up to his own buzzword. 

Dear Diary, 2/14: A.J. on target for Opening Day nod

A.J. Burnett is throwing his first bullpen session today in Pirate City — the beginning of his long warm-up for Opening Day.

Manager Clint Hurdle isn’t close to naming his starter for Opening Day, which is 45 days away, preferring to extend the suspense.

What suspense?

Last year, the Pirates had planned for Burnett to pitch the opener, making that decision even before A.J. fouled a bunt off his eye only a few days after his trade from the Yankees was finalized. Subsequently, the nod trickled down to Erik Bedard — who pitched exceptionally in the leadoff 1-0 loss to the Phillies in PNC Park.

Add the fact that Burnett went on to emerge as the Bucs’ ace, and there’s no doubt he will get the ball against the Cubs on April 1 in The Bank. The only suspense is when Hurdle will make it official.

It will be the 15-year veteran’s FIRST Opening Day assignment.

The Sanchez Trap has been set

BRADENTON — I might be in big trouble — and not for betting the farm on the Pirates having a winning 2013 season. (Just kidding — I don’t have a farm; I bet my pension on it.)

What better way to start off this Spring Training than by recalling last Spring Training’s personal, recurring nightmare: As some of you may remember, I developed this nasty mental block about referring to Alex Presley as Alex Sanchez — apparently making me the only one unable to get out of his mind the outfielder who hit six homers in 427 games four four different teams between 2001-2005.

Now here’s the rub: I couldn’t unplug that brain drain, even though the Pirates did not actually have anyone in camp named “Sanchez.”

And now there are three of them: Gaby, Jonathan and Tony.

Heaven help me if comes an exhibition with Jonathan throwing to Tony, while Gaby plays first and Alex is in left field. Odds on me leaving Alex out of the Sanchez quad-fecta are longer than of the Pirates having a winning season.

Dang. I should’ve saved the pension for that bet.

Where’s Virgil Trucks when we need him?

PITTSBURGH — In the frigid early February dawn, bats, balls, helmets and the other tools of summer were loaded onto the truck for the annual trip to Bradenton, Fla.

When that truck returns to PNC Park in eight weeks, it will be packing spring.

The Pirates’ 2013 season got literally rolling on Monday morning, when the equipment truck expertly packed by the team’s clubhouse staff, under the direction of clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett, pulled away at 9:45 a.m. and embarked for Pirate City and another dawn, that of Spring Training.Image

 

In three days, that truck will cover 910 miles and about 65 degrees.

 

It’s an annual rite of mid-winter and a sure sign of the approaching re-birth of mild breezes and of hope. The unloaded contents of the truck will be neatly organized in front of lockers to welcome the arrival of the players who will make good use of them.

 

Pittsburgh pitchers and catchers will formally report next Monday — although quite a few of them are already in Pirate City — and hold their first official workout on Feb. 12.

 

The rest of the team will pull in on Feb. 14, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for the following day.

 

The cargo included about 48 dozen bats, boxes of balls and bags of sunflower seeds — and the nines of any baseball wardrobe, from undergarments to batting practice jersey tops, and everything in-between. And, oh yes — the pierogi costumes, which will next be seen racing around the warning track of McKechnie Field.

 

What a confirmation that baseball still denotes renaissance, this simple, rather mundane ritual that means so much to so many people, moving them to daydream about light standards brightening warm summer nights and glistening off the Allegheny River waters flowing under the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

It’s coming. We know this because the truck is going.

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