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Pirates have their own deadline for Lester deal

The Pirates continue to chat with the Red Sox about getting the pitcher they want without giving up what Boston wants.

Not only do the Bucs want to land left-hander Jon Lester, they want to bag him quickly. Forget Thursday’s 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline; the Pirates have their own deadline – 7 p.m. ET tomorrow, before Lester takes his scheduled turn in Fenway Park against Toronto.

Lester is a difference maker, and if things work out, the Pirates don’t want him using up any more bullets in Boston.

Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington’s refusal to part with top prospects for a two-month rental — Lester will be a free agent after the season, and the Bucs couldn’t even afford the deal he has already turned  down from the Red Sox — makes the players most coveted by the Red Sox off limits. Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and Austin Meadows are not on the table.

Boston’s desperate move for Stephen Drew failed, and the Bucs are trying to drum up their interest in Alen Hanson. Hot Single-A outfielder Jacoby Jones (16 homers at West Virginia) is also in the conversation, and Major League vet Jose Tabata — still only 25 — is a wild card in the talks.

Lester could only be the starting point of any business with the Red Sox. During Spring Training, the Pirates had interest in Mike Carp, the left-handed hitting first baseman / outfielder who has burned his Boston bridges by recently requesting a trade. The Bucs also have interest in virtually the entire Red Sox bullpen.

The situation described here can also apply to another lefty, David Price. And the Rays have recently had scouts watching Double-A Altoona (Bell and Hanson are both with the Curve). However, if their current hot streak hasn’t changed the Rays’ minds about dealing Price, it has at the very least escalated his price out of what the Pirates would consider.

Tom Singer

Did Cole, Liriano cool Pirates’ interest in rotation help?

The Pirates are keeping one eye on the trade market and the other on their two pitchers who will dictate how zealous they will be as the end-of-July deadline approaches.

Before and during Wednesday night’s game, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano both sent messages to GM Neal Huntington to “cool it.”

Huntington’s reads on Cole, on the DL with a sore lat, and on Liriano, whose pitching has been hurting, will greatly influence whether pitching help will be needed for the stretch.

Cole felt so good in a sim game that he wound up going 10 pitches over his target of 60.

Liriano one-upped him in his Wednesday night start, holding the Dodgers hitless for 4 1/3 innings and winding up allowing four hit4s and one run in seven innings. In his last 14 innings, covering three starts, Liriano has yielded one earned run and  seven hits, while fanning 15.

Feeling more secure in what they can expect from the duo — and saying so publicly — could also just be a negotiating tactic, obviously. Teams lower the price on available pieces if they know you are not desperate for them. That’s when it becomes a buyer’s market.

Either way, Cole and Liriano both had the Bucs feeling better about their rotation on Wednesday night than they felt over their morning coffee.

Tom Singer

Pirates players deny lobbying for Burnett’s return

Several Pirates players laughed off a widely-circulated report that they have been lobbying for the club to reacquire right-hander A.J. Burnett from Philadelphia.

The report, by FOX-TV’s Ken Rosenthal, crawled across the clubhouse big-screen TV tuned to the MLB Network on Tuesday night, prompting double-takes from several players.

“I haven’t even heard anyone bring up A.J.’s name here,” said left-hander Jeff Locke, the closest of Burnett’s teammates during his two years in Pittsburgh. “To lobby would mean approaching management. I’m not sure how you’d do that.”

“We have enough to do just playing the game, taking care of our business,” said Andrew McCutchen. “If something like that happens, fine. But we can’t be concerned with it ahead of time.”

None of this is to firmly say sentiment for Burnett’s return has not been raised in the Bucs’ clubhouse; not all players were questioned. And if the reunion does occur, he would be welcomed.

“A.J. is such a hard worker and tough competitor. I think he’s leading the league in starts (Burnett was tied with several others with 21 starts before making his 22nd start Wednesday night),” Locke said. “He’s had some off days, but everyone has those.”

Speaking of not lobbying — Burnett himself has said he is not asking the Phillies for a trade, but would be good with it if it happened. And he did say his preferred destination would be a return to Pittsburgh — where two weeks ago he was saluted with a big-board “Thank You” video when he took the mound to face the Pirates.

Tom Singer

Pirates have eyes on Philly. But is it for A.J.?

Seeking potential rotation insurance for Gerrit Cole’s extended absence with a sore lat and an erratic Francisco Liriano, the Pirates have their eyes on the Phillies — as has been reported — but not necessarily on A.J. Burnett.

The Pirates were singled out as one of the clubs that scouted Burnett’s start on Friday — against the Braves. However, according to a reliable club source, the scout that night in Citizens Bank Park is assigned to the Braves, so he just “ran into A.J.”

However, the Braves have left Philadelphia but the Pirates still had a scout in Citizens Bank Park — for Cliff Lee’s Monday night start, the left-hander’s first since going on the DL on May 21 with a strained left elbow. Lee is a popular target of shoppers: As many as 10 teams reportedly are on site to check him out.

For the Bucs to get seriously involved for either veteran, the Phillies would have to cover the majority of the salaries owed them.

Burnett is still owed all of his $7.5 million signing bonus, the first payment of that due on Dec. 15, and the prorated portion of his $7.5 million salary for 2014. He also has a $1 million buyout on his $15 million  mutual options for 2015.

Lee’s contract calls fro $25 million this season and next, with a whopping $12.5 million buyout of his 2016 option of $27.5 million.

Tom Singer

Liriano holds key to Pirates’ interest in adding to rotation

This is more trade static than trade buzz: Recurring reports that the Pirates are actively shopping for starting pitching.

General managers always scour the market, and Neal Huntington is no exception. However, adding a starter is a pretty low priority now.

All you have to remember is that the Bucs had to send Brandon Cumpton back to Triple-A off his undefeated (3-0) June to make rotation room when Gerrit Cole came off the disabled list, after missing 3 1/2 weeks with shoulder fatigue.

When Francisco Liriano — already on the verge of possibly a one-and-done rehab assignment — also returns, someone else will have to exit from a rotation that has posted a 3.10 ERA for nearly a month.

Does that sound like a team in desperate need of pitching?

This can change, and Liriano is key: His comeback shoud coincide with the strech drive to the Trade Deadline. If his prospects look dim, the Pirates could look to upgrade.

Manager Cint Hurdle and Huntington may also prioritize adding a veteran with pennant race experience — and to do so be willing to part with some of the youngsters who provide the currenr depth.

Tom Singer

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 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