The Pirates yesterday completed the contract of free-agent reliever Brendan Donnelly and, to clear space on the full 40-man roster, traded Brian Bixler to the Cleveland Indians for Jesus Brito in an exchange of minor-league infield prospects.
On deck: Octavio Dotel.
The addition of Donnelly raised the key free-agent bullpen signings to three, including Javier Lopez and D.J. Carrasco, to join the only two internal locks, Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek. Still missing from that list is Dotel, the prospective closer, even though the team and player have been close to reaching agreement for more than a week. But one source said last night that talks have not taken a step backward and reiterated that only "details" remain.
Once Dotel is done, it appears likely that the core of the 2010 Pirates will be set.
Donnelly, a 38-year-old right-hander with a 3.02 career ERA and two World Series rings, arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday to pass a physical and sign his one-year contract: $1.35 million in salary, plus as much as $1.65 million in performance bonuses based on appearances.
In 2007, Donnelly had Tommy John elbow surgery, then struggled the following year. The Texas Rangers cut him out of spring training last year but, after a month of being idle, he joined the Houston Astros' Class AAA Round Rock affiliate and had a 1.75 ERA in 24 appearances.
"I'd spent about a month at home waiting for a call," Donnelly said yesterday. "I was cutting my grass, doing the landscaping, driving my wife crazy. Finally, I just said to my agent, 'I'll go to the minors. Get me somewhere.' After that, everything just clicked."
Florida signed him in early July, and he was just as good, with a 1.78 ERA in 30 appearances while in a setup role for the 87-win Marlins.
The recovery from the surgery, Donnelly said, allowed him to expand his repertoire.
"Honestly, I feel like I've just re-learned how to pitch, how to get the very best out of myself," Donnelly said. "I wish that had happened before age 38, but I'll take it."
Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, said his scouts regularly clocked Donnelly's fastball at 92-93 mph -- an uptick over recent years -- and that he was effective against batters from both sides of the plate, with a .262 opponents' batting average against righties, .220 against lefties.
Huntington said Donnelly will be a candidate for the Pirates' setup role.
"We saw Brendan pitching down the stretch for Florida in meaningful games, tough situations," Huntington said.
Donnelly sounded enthusiastic about joining the Pirates, adding that he chose them over other offers.
"I decided mostly because I liked what I experienced in Florida, working with a good, young club," he said. "I feel like I'm a good fit. The Pirates have good, young talent, too. It's no secret that they unloaded a lot of their players in the past year, but I like what I've seen of the young guys they have. This, for me, is an opportunity to be part of something I really enjoyed. But I'll pitch, too. I'll do what I do. Late in the game, game on the line that's what I do."
Bixler, 27, spent most of 2009 with Class AAA Indianapolis and, in 18 games for the Pirates, batted.227 with a remarkable 26 strikeouts in 44 at-bats. He was the team's second-round draft pick in 2004.
Brito, 22, is a 6-foot-1, 160-pound right-handed batter who finished fifth among all minor league players with a .353 combined average between rookie ball and Class A, 19 doubles, 10 triples, three home runs and 43 RBIs in 60 games. It was his first North American season after three professional years in his native Dominican Republic.
The catch: Brito still has no position. Cleveland tried him at third base and the outfield, and he struggled enough at both -- including 19 errors in 47 games at third -- that the Pirates plan to thoroughly reevaluate his skill set before deciding where he will play.
"He's got good bat-to-ball skills, good strike-zone discipline," Huntington said. "He's got a live, wiry body, so there's some room to add strength, too."
He is expected to remain in Class A.
NOTES -- There was no sign as of late last night that the Pirates and starter Zach Duke, their only arbitration-eligible player, would agree on a new contract before noon today, Major League Baseball's deadline for teams and players to exchange salary figures toward a hearing. The next step is a hearing -- those will take place Feb. 1-21 -- before a three-member arbitration panel that chooses one figure or the other. A settlement still can be reached at any point until the hearing. Duke made $2.2 million last season and, in his second year of arbitration eligibility, could double that. ... Huntington, on Duke and arbitration: "We think both sides would prefer not to go to a hearing, but we're always prepared." ... The Pirates had expressed interest in recovering free-agent pitcher Noah Lowry early this offseason, but they are not among the teams expected to watch his pitching sessions this month.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published January 19, 2010 4:30 AM