New Pirates catcher adjusts to fresh surroundings


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Russell Martin walked into Pirate City with a backpack slung over his shoulder Monday morning. At his locker, he slipped on a pair of brand-new, bright-yellow shoes.

If the first day of spring training is anything like the first day of school, Martin was the new kid in class.

"I really don't remember being this happy on the first day of school," he said.

Martin even went on a shopping spree to find the right color clothes, now that he's the backstop for the black and gold. It's no secret he can afford it.

The Pirates signed Martin, 29, to a two-year, $17 million deal in the offseason to lure him away from the New York Yankees, the onetime, free-spending team that never made the catcher an offer. With the Pirates, he joins former battery mate A.J. Burnett, who thrived once he got away from the pressures of Yankee Stadium.

"Y'all's numbers are a little smaller over here than in New York," Burnett said to a group of reporters, "but it's the same game. We're all here for the same reason. He'll fit in fine."

The Pirates signed Martin in hopes of upgrading a position that struggled to control the running game from behind the plate and generate offense at the plate. The team finished last in the majors in 2012 in stolen-base percentage as opposition runners advanced on 89 percent of all steal attempts.

The Washington Nationals had the second-worst mark at 83.5 percent, and the Arizona Diamondbacks were the best, allowing opponents to steal a base at a 56.5-percent clip.

On offense, Pirates catchers fared better, but not by much. They hit .218 with 23 home runs and 68 RBIs -- the lowest batting average of any of the team's non-pitching positions.

The team declined to exercise an option on starting catcher Rod Barajas and signed Martin to the biggest guaranteed deal a free-agent catcher received this offseason.

"Pittsburgh had, hands down, the best deal available," Martin said.

Burnett and Barajas had a close relationship, forged when the two were Toronto Blue Jays in 2008. But Burnett also worked well with Martin in 2011 in New York.

"It's tough being such a Rod fan, but, at the same time, I'm a Russell fan, too," Burnett said. "I had a great time in New York with him. He prepares well, he plays hard, and I think he's going to help us out a little bit."

Martin allowed 79.5 percent of would-be base-stealers to advance in 2012, and he hit a career-worst .211 for the Yankees. He is a career .260 hitter, though he has not finished a season above that mark since 2008.

Martin is optimistic he will be able to be successful.

"You get a player that loves to compete and has a skill set that can still produce and still has more desire in him to do better," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's got some areas that he wants to improve upon."

Martin signed a two-year deal -- though the Pirates were willing to sign him from a three-year contract -- because he believes he can prove enough in two years to warrant a larger contract.

"I'm just in a good spot right now," he said. "Confidence comes from preparation, and I trained the right way this offseason."

He also did his homework, pulling video this offseason of the pitching staff to learn their tendencies. Martin, born in Ontario, will play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, so he wanted to get a head start on learning about his new staff before he leaves for the WBC March 2.

"With this team, there's a bit more youth," Martin said. "I can be more of a leader when it comes to helping pitchers understand themselves and get better."

It's a role similar to the one Burnett adopted a year ago after he left New York for a new city. Martin had no ill will toward the Yankees and thought little of their decision to part with him so easily.

"I'm going to miss everybody there," he said. "The coaching staff is awesome. The guys are awesome. They play the right way. Everything's done the right way over there. I enjoyed the experience, but that chapter's over with. And now I have a new chapter opening for me. Right now, in the moment, I'm happy where I'm at."

NOTES -- All but one of the Pirates pitchers and catchers reported Monday to Bradenton, by the mandatory report date. Only pitcher Stolmy Pimentel, who is on the 40-man roster, did not report. Pimentel, acquired from Boston this offseason in the Joel Hanrahan trade, is having issues with obtaining a visa to travel to the United States from the Dominican Republic. ... Fifteen of the team's spring training games will be broadcast on KDKA-FM (93.7 The Fan), the team's radio partner.

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter: @msanserino. First Published February 13, 2013 5:00 AM


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