Russell Martin’s free agency looms large as Pirates face offseason

17 Comments

The Pirates aren’t known for opening their wallets, but they’ll have to dig deep this winter to keep Russell Martin, arguably their second most important player in their last two postseason runs.

Martin is coming off the best offensive performance of his career, a .290/.402/.430 campaign in 111 games. However, it could prove to be an isolated performance. Martin had similar seasons in his first three years with the Dodgers from 2006-08, but since then his OPSs read: .680, .679, .732, .713, .703 and .832. The last mark sticks out like a sore thumb, and Martin has quite a bit of mileage on his soon-to-be 32-year-old body.

Making things more problematic for the Pirates is that not only is Martin the best catcher available in free agency, he completely laps the field. The fallbacks as potential starters are Nick Hundley, Geovany Soto and A.J. Pierzynski.

The Pirates don’t have a quality internal solution either. Former first-round pick Tony Sanchez isn’t known for his defense, and it’s not like he really makes up for it with his bat, either. Light-hitting Chris Stewart remains under control, but the backup role is all he’s really suited for.

If the Pirates can’t get a deal done with Martin in the coming weeks, the Rockies and Rangers figure to target him in free agency. Other suitors could also emerge, with the Dodgers, Angels, Cubs and Astros possibly jumping into the mix.

Besides Martin, the Pirates face losing starters Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez in free agency this winter, which would leave them looking at more buy-low candidates to go along with Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton in next year’s rotation. They’ll also have to make a decision on how to handle first base, which will probably involve non-tendering either Ike Davis or Pedro Alvarez.

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

8 Comments

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”