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Burnitz To The Pirates


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The Pirates are close to a deal to sign free-agent outfielder Jeromy Burnitz.


The sides have agreed to most aspects of a contract, a source close to the negotiations said yesterday, but some details remain, including Burnitz passing a physical. It is not known precisely what the other details are, but the source said they were not likely to prevent an agreement, which could be achieved in the next day or two.


Multiple reports out of Baltimore last week said Burnitz had agreed to a two-year deal with the Orioles worth between $10 million and $12 million. But Howard Simon, Burnitz's Connecticut-based agent, insisted yesterday that no deal had been struck and that he had told reporters only that he was "staying in close touch" with the Orioles.


Simon's focus in the past three days has shifted to discussions with Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield.


Simon declined to offer specifics, but it is believed that Burnitz's contract would be for two years with a total value in the range of $12 million, which would make it the richest free-agent signing in the Pirates' history. However much they are offering, it appears it is more than still-on-the-table offers from the Orioles and Houston Astros.


Burnitz, who will turn 37 April 15, fits the description of the type of player Littlefield has been targeting for right field. He is a left-handed power hitter, with 299 career home runs to go with a .255 average, and is sound defensively.


The Pirates' courtship of Burnitz is their second in as many years. He was the only prominent free agent they pursued last offseason, and they narrowly lost out on his services to the Chicago Cubs. Each team offered a $4.5 million salary, but the Cubs added a $7 million option for 2006 with a $500,000 buyout.


Chicago exercised that buyout after last season, one in which Burnitz batted .258 with 24 home runs, 31 doubles and 87 RBIs. He led the team with 160 games played and 40 two-out RBIs.


Most of Burnitz's production for the Cubs came out of the cleanup spot, which is where the Pirates would use him, with Jason Bay and Sean Casey batting around him -- one in the third spot, the other fifth -- and Joe Randa at sixth. Burnitz has topped 100 strikeouts in each of his nine full seasons of Major League Baseball, including 109 last year, but management says it believes it can minimize that by surrounding him with good contact men such as Casey and Randa.


It might seem Burnitz's bat would be a good fit for PNC Park, given the proximity of the Clemente Wall in right field and his ability to pull the ball, but his history there is spotty. He has a .174 average and three home runs in 92 at-bats.


There is little doubt Burnitz would be a good fit in right field. He showed two seasons ago in Denver's spacious Coors Field he could cover enough ground to spend 69 games as the Colorado Rockies' center fielder, and he would not have nearly that much territory at PNC Park. Also, he has a strong and accurate arm that would be accented by the shorter throws to the infield.


Right field is the last unchecked mark on Littlefield's list of positions he said he hoped to upgrade this offseason, the others being first base (Casey), third base (Randa) and right-handed relief (Roberto Hernandez).


The Pirates, who have an estimated $9 million to spend toward their payroll for next season, considered several possibilities for the spot.


One was a brief inquiry with Preston Wilson, the most expensive free agent remaining. Bob Bry, Wilson's Missouri-based agent, said yesterday that he spoke twice with Littlefield early last week and that it was clear they would go no further.


Another was the chance of making a trade with Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff, a player they long have coveted. A source close to the Devil Rays said over the weekend that it was not clear if the Pirates had pushed for Huff, who has been on the trading block for three months.


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