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The case against — and for — a Morales-Pirates union

One of the first players linked this offseason to the Pirates’ need for a lefty-hitting first baseman — Kendrys Morales — remains in play. However, the Bucs still view him as a back-burner option, for the same reason other National League clubs shy away — his reduced ability to play the field since the freakish high left-ankle injury that cost him a season-and-a-half.

In the two seasons since returning from that mid-2010 injury, Morales has played 59 games at first base — and 214 as the DH.

Morales, 30, also would be a poor candidate to platoon with Gaby Sanchez, a southpaw killer the Pirates fully expect to keep in the picture. Not only is Morales a switch-hitter, but his splits are relatively even (when adjusting for the fact he gets to swing far more from the left side against righties than the other way around).

Perhaps that is one way GM Neal Huntington could justify giving Morales a Garrett Jones-sized deal: He’d be kept busy enough; in 2013, the Pirates saw more than four times as many right-handed starters (131) as lefties (31).

Something else worth bearing in mind: Unless the Cardinals’ Jamie Garcia recovers from a sprained shoulder or Tony Cingrani  comes out of the Reds’ bullpen to join their rotation, neither of the Bucs’ NL Central competitors will have a left-handed starter.

Morales would also set up the Pirates better for their 10 Interleague Games in AL parks: The six players rotated in the DH spot last season hit a combined .171 — without a home run and ONE RBI in 41 at-bats.

– Tom Singer

Huntington will have to again get creative to bag Burnett

Neal Huntington went on the air [970ESPN] Friday night to explain why the Pirates did not make a qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett: The $14.1 million does not fit in the club’s payroll.

This is neither news — the Pirates have never had an eight-figure player, and even if they push their 2014 payroll into the $100 million range, the qualifying level would represent 14 percent of it — nor does it mean the Bucs will not be re-signing the pitcher, if ultimately he decides to keep pitching. The 36-year-old vet is still mulling over retirement.

It does probably mean Huntington will once again have to get creative. Burnett rightfully does not think he should take a significant cut in guaranteed salary after having the best strikeout ratio [9.8/9 innings] of NL starters while earning $16.5 million. The Yankees still picked up $8 million of that.

If Burnett has been sincere about not wishing to pitch anywhere else but Pittsburgh, and would be unwilling to do it at a reduced rate, he would be left with nowhere to go, right?

Not necessarily. No one has yet discussed this openly, but this is where Huntington could get creative:

Burnett is torn between his real family and the Pirates family? Neither professional pride — nor, for that matter, the union — would let him take a pay slash?

Burnett could satisfy both of those conditions by making a midseason return, a la Roger Clemens a few years back. That would allow Burnett  family time, and for the Bucs to shoehorn the prorated portion of an eight-figure salary into their budget. And, just in case a jolt is needed both in the clubhouse and at the gate, imagine the impact of a mid-June Burnett landing.

Bucs hope to lock up Burnett with qualifying offer

Of their seven free agents, the Pirates are eager to re-sign three: Right-hander A.J. Burnett, outfielder Marlon Byrd and shortstop Clint Barmes. That leaves Justin Morneau, John Buck, Kyle Farnsworth and Jeff Karstens at least on the backburner — and, most likely, out.

Burnett’s case is by far the most intriguing — because he has gone on the record that he will either pitch for the Pirates or retire. A heck of a negotiating stance, should he decide to continue his career. In all likelihood, the Bucs will make his the qualifying offer of $14.1 million and he will accept — buy both sides time to negotiate a new deal if he decided to go on.

The five-day exclusivity window is a non-issue with Burnett, given his Bucs-or-out stance. But GM Neal Huntington will push hard for deals within that timeframe with Byrd and Barmes. With Gregory Polanco having dibs on right field and Jordy Mercer the ’14 shortstop regular, both Boyd and Mercer could be more valuable to other teams, and thus get higher offers on the open market.

The Pirates had to talk themselves into giving the injury-prone Karstens a new deal last  offseason, and sure enough he didn’t throw one pitch for them. Buck, a short-term placeholder for Tony Sanchez — the new No. 2 behind Russell Martin — and Farnsworth could be resigned in late January if they find no market. Morneau will most likely seek a deal that returns the lifetime Twin to the American League.

Tom Singer

Could Tabata satisfy Bucs’ biggest need?

Although Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is taking a typical public stance — “We don’t have any glaring needs, but are looking for any possible upgrade.” — at the top of the Bucs’ wish list is right-handed power and bench help. If it can come in the same package, all the better.

Pedro Alvarez still is the only Pittsburgh player with homers in double figures. Although several righty-hitting teammates are close (Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Russell Martin) none of them are viewed as pure long-ball threats.

The position most in need of an upgrade in this area is right field, typically one of the power spots on the field. The Bucs have gotten a total of eight homers out of that position.

Jose Tabata is getting a big chance to prove he can be the regular right fielder, and he has produced exceptionally since coming off the DL (.400 in eight games). But he has never been a power guy.

The Bucs had some interest in Scott Hairston, but the Cubs have since moved him to the Nationals.

Someone like Alfonso Soriano perfectly fits the profile — but he isn’t an off-the-bench kind of guy and the only position he can reasonably fill is left field, where Marte is immovable.

No. 1 on the wish list would be someone like Alexis Rios. The Pirates like him enough for Huntington to try to be creative enough to make fit as much of the $18 million left on his contract through 2014 that the club would have to assume.

Rios would be a natural fit in another significant way: The Puerto Rico native was compared to Roberto Clemente in his younger years, due largely to a comparable arm, and having him play in front of the Clemente Wall could be oure magic.

Tom Singer

Pirates finalists for Russell Martin?

The Pirates are shopping for catching in a thin market that leaves them few high-end choices and, according to one published report, aren’t shying away from the heat.

Jon Heyman reports on CBSsports.com that the Bucs have stepped up as finalists with the Yankees for Russell Martin’s services. At 29 — he will turn 30 during Spring Training — Martin is the youngest, by far, of 13 free-agent catchers.

Martin has also drawn interest from Texas and Seattle, after hitting the market seeking a long-term deal for about $10 million per. He has slightly backed off that figure, and the Pirates are portrayed as being will to go three years at $8 mil per.

One thing Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington has to be wary of: Not being used as leverage to get the Yankees to improve their offer. Martin is known to favor a return to New York, but the Yankees haven’t budged from offering a two-year deal, also in the $8 million-a-year range.

Martin’s age would be a plus for the Pirates, As would his weaponry behind the plate: He threw out 20 of 63 baserunners, a 24 percent rate that would be a vast improvement over the Pirates’ performance in 2012, with Rod Barajas as their lead guy.

Not so encouraging: Martin hit .211, merely five points higher than Barajas, with 10 more homers (21) and 22 more RBIs (53) in 101 more at-bats than Barajas, himself a free agent.

Tom Singer

Grilli a hot commodity

Jason Grilli, a first-time free agent at 36 after an eye-popping comeback season that solidified the Pirates’ bullpen, is turning into a hot commodity on the reliever market.

His agent, Gary Sheffield — yes, that Gary Sheffield, who retired as a player three years ago with 509 homers, tells the Boston Globe there are eight teams interested in the veteran right-hander.

If those eight include teams not turned off by Grilli’s understandable wish for a multi-year deal, the Bucs would not be one of them. The Pirates would very much like to retain Grilli, who struck out 90 in 58 2/3 innings and even served as Joel Hanrahan’s back-up closer. But they subscribe to the popular belief that the bullpen is a team’s most transient area, relatively easy to overhaul  with young arms, and are very unlikely to offer a multi-year deal to any reliever.

“We have three offers right now.” Sheffield, based in Tampa, told the Boston newspaper. “We’re not in a hurry. There are some things we want to look at a little further. We’re not sure the market has fully developed for Jason.”

All things being the same, Grilli would want to return to Pittsburgh, which salvaged his career by signing him the day after the Phillies had released him in the middle of the 2011 season. But a one-year deal versus a longer-term contract is not the same.

Grilli has been in the Majors on-and-off since 2000, and has earned less than $5 million all that time. His Pirates contract in 2012 — for $1.1 million — was the largest of his career. Thus far.

Tom Singer

Upton-to-Pirates talks could gain steam

The level of the Pirates’ interest in trading for Arizona outfielder Justin Upton has progressed from intriguing to exploratory, a result of blue-chip pitching prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon coming out of the equation.

The trade-off piece apparently is high, with Starling Marte having entered the discussion. The prospect of including Marte, who has a half-season of Triple-A experience, in a deal for Upton, who at only one year older is a Major League veteran of five-and-a-half seasons, is highly fascinating.

Talk are at a preliminary stage and, even if they progress, Marte and Upton figure to only be the central characters in a blockbuster deal involving many other names.

Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington likes the part of Upton remaining under club control through 2015, when the six-year contract he signed in March 2010 expires. Huntington is less excited about that contract having $42.5 million remaining on it.

Irony: Upton’s six-year, $51.25 million deal was one of the templates for the six-year, $51.5 million extension signed by Andrew McCutchen prior to the start of this season.

Tom Singer

In PNC Park: Pride ‘n Applause

PITTSBURGH — This was a crowd that came to cheer. Opening Day fans at PNC Park couldn’t hold their voices during the always-patriotic, sometimes solemn ceremonies that set the stage for the beginning of the Pirates’ 126th season.

With United States Military representatives presenting the colors around second base and introduced Pirates and Phillies lined up on their respective baselines, the observations began with a video montage of all the former Pirates who have passed away since the last Opening Day, followed by a request for a moment of silence.

Instead, the fans almost immediately broke into a standing ovation of gratitude for those players who’d thrilled them in bygone years.

Thinking they had heard the final verse of 11-year-old Shane Treloar’s stunning rendition of America the Beautiful, the crowd broke into appreciative applause. But Shane was only catching his breath, and continued on to an even louder ovation.

Then members of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Army Field Band Ensemble harmonized through a touching rendition of the National Anthem.

Grateful recognition of the military and of veterans culminated with Pittsburgh-native Jeremy Feldbusch delivering the ceremonial first pitch. Feldbusch lost his sight during his tour of duty in Iraq, when the Army Ranger’s unit came under fire and an explosive detonated near him.

Feldbusch, representing the Wounded Warriors Project, still delivered a perfect strike to get a perfect day of baseball’s perennial rebirth underway.

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