Vazquez aims to push Pirates' infielders

Bautista released; seven other arbitration players tendered

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Ramon Vazquez is adamant he is not coming to Pittsburgh to take anyone's job.

But he did allow, shortly after signing his two-year, $4 million contract with the Pirates yesterday, that he plans to push all of the infielders who have everyday duty.

"Look, I've been a utility guy for five or six years now, and I'm a guy who can play any position, from first to third," he said. "If a guy goes down for a month or two, I can perform for you there. If I go out there for just a couple days to take the place of a guy who's struggling, maybe I'll open that player's eyes. Maybe I'll show him what he should be doing."

Vazquez's signing was the Pirates' first out of free agency this offseason, and it came despite a push from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The contract calls for a $250,000 signing bonus, a $1.75 million salary for 2009 and a $2 million salary for the following year.

On another front, the Pirates last night declined to tender a contract offer to reliever Denny Bautista before the midnight deadline for all players eligible for salary arbitration. That made Bautista a free agent and might have ended his brief stint with the Pirates, though general manager Neal Huntington said, "We'd like to get him back."

The other seven eligible players -- outfielder Nate McLouth, first baseman Adam LaRoche, catcher Ryan Doumit and pitchers Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, John Grabow and Tyler Yates -- were tendered offers and, thus, had their rights retained.

Vazquez, 32, is coming off a season with the Texas Rangers in which he batted a career-high .290 -- well above his overall career average of .257 -- with six home runs, 18 doubles and 40 RBIs in 300 at-bats. He also played all four infield positions, including 26 games at his natural position, shortstop.

If that solid season inflated his ego, though, it is difficult to detect.

"Sometimes, you need a guy like me, on the field and in the clubhouse," Vazquez said. "I know this is a young team, but that's fine. Look at the teams that have been successful the past few years. Look at Tampa Bay. You have to have talent, but you also have to do things the right way, and you have to believe."

Huntington phoned Vazquez's agent, Melvin Roman, on the opening day of free agency in mid-November.

"He's a veteran presence, a left-handed bat who will be a nice complement for us with our middle infielders," Huntington said, "and the biggest thing is that he's the type of guy who could fill in for a long stretch if someone goes down."

"That meant a lot to me, that the Pirates were there right away," Vazquez said.

Something else sure to carry some meaning for Vazquez, as it relates to the Pirates, is his heritage.

"Anybody who's a Puerto Rican, whether you're a baseball person or not, the first name you think of in terms of respect is Roberto Clemente. It will be an honor to wear the Pirates uniform."

Bautista, 28, had a 6.10 ERA in 35 appearances after being acquired from Detroit in a June 25 trade that sent pitching prospect Kyle Pearson to the Tigers. There were times when Bautista, blessed with a blazing fastball, was efficient, especially in long relief. But his 34 strikeouts in 41 innings were more than nullified by 28 walks.

"It was mostly about a roster spot," Huntington said. "We'd like to have him compete for a job in our bullpen, but we weren't willing to gamble upwards of a half-million dollars that he was going to make our team."

Bautista made $395,000 last season, $5,000 more than Major League Baseball's minimum, but might have doubled that through the arbitration process.

Pearson, 24, finished his minor league season with a 6.75 ERA and was released by Detroit in October.

The 40-man roster is at 39, and the Pirates are known to be interested in some of the players expected to be non-tendered around the majors.

The arbitration filing period this offseason is Jan. 5-15, and all players will do so. The deadline for exchanging figures between the player and team is Jan. 19. The player and team can reach amicable agreement on a contract at any point until the hearing, and those will be conducted from Feb. 1-21.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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