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Rossi: Bucs can weather loss of Martin

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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates catcher Russell Martin celebrates after defeating the Brewers on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, at PNC Park.

Even the obvious narratives have plot holes. Take the one about Russell Martin being irreplaceable, a catcher the Pirates cannot afford to lose.

It’s a masterful work of fiction, and I’m as guilty as anybody for having contributed to it at various times in recent months. In fact, I once wrote that the Pirates need to re-sign Martin to legitimize themselves with the doubting, suspicious fans who once witnessed an unfathomable 20 consecutive losing seasons.

I was wrong.

I realized that on the final day of the regular season when Gerrit Cole, having struck out 12 batters in seven innings at Cincinnati, sounded like he would be ready to start the National League wild-card game for the Pirates. Then, after he didn’t pitch in that wild-card game, as he packed his gear for the offseason, Cole sounded like he would dedicate the rest of his Pirates tenure to making sure he was on the mound the next time there was a “Buctober.”

“We’re not done,” Cole said to a teammate.

Sounded like somebody who wanted to throw a 100 mph heater high and tight at anybody looking to end the narrative his Pirates are trying to create.

I’d say it sounded like somebody who really is irreplaceable.

Look, Martin was awesome the past two seasons. His framing of pitches and slowing the opponents’ running games were critical components of the team’s rise from loser to winner to contender.

Losing him in free agency will be a blow to the Pirates, but it was always one they would need to absorb. As soon as he signed two years ago, Martin talked about setting himself up for a free-agent lottery ticket. He always was eyeing an option the Pirates could never provide: a long-term deal for an aging catcher.

When he does leave, it will prove again the Pirates are not seriously trying to win, right? After all, everything they do is about fattening the wallet belonging to owner Bob Nutting, right?

Surely there is no way the Pirates might have a plan, one that is working, and they might simply be making hard decisions by sticking to it.

The narrative entitled “they’re cheap” was an easy read after the Pirates didn’t bring back former staff ace A.J. Burnett last season. However, selective storytellers have omitted details about Burnett alienating some teammates, infuriating his manager and miffing a lot of other people with his petulant response to not starting a deciding Game 5 of the 2013 National League divisional series.

The Pirates never wanted to chance Burnett coming back, unlike pitcher Francisco Liriano, who along with Martin received a qualifying offer Monday. Actually, they were so over Burnett that they willingly sacrificed a somewhat valuable compensatory draft pack to avoid it.

That was not an example of cheap ownership. It was ownership authorizing management to establish an identity for a franchise that needed to be about something.

Maybe some people wonder what the Pirates are all about?

I see an organization learning how to win, striving to contend consistently, believing the best way to do that is by drafting, developing and retaining its best players through their prime years, and by taking some chances on veterans.

I see a path similar to the Kansas City Royals, who just won the American League.

I see the Pirates building toward winning the National League, and doing it without Martin behind the plate.

They’ll need another backstop, and a free agent such as David Ross could serve as a suitable stopgap, especially defensively. He won’t hit, but neither do Pirates’ first basemen. Fixing that first-base black hole would help mitigate a regression at catcher, especially offensively.

Really, though, this offseason should be about the Pirates trying to do with Cole (and outfielder Gregory Polanco) what they accomplished with perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and rising star Starling Marte: long-term contracts.

Aside from raising the payroll to $90 million, which absolutely should happen considering the attendance at PNC Park over the past two seasons (almost 5 million), nothing will legitimize the Pirates like signing Cole to a mega-deal.

He isn’t even eligible for arbitration until 2017, but why not try to wipe out those years of potentially uncontrollable cost now? All Cole and agent Scott Boras can do is say no to a back-loaded offer of, say, six years and $60 million. (That total would be about $25 million more than San Francisco stud Madison Bumgarner received on a six-year contract, by the way.)

Of course, if the answer is no, that will serve to add another chapter to another tired narrative about the Pirates.

They’re never willing to offer enough to get or keep great players, right?

They got Martin. They kept McCutchen. They have built a playoff team while maintaining a system praised for its prospects.

There is such a thing as narrative nonfiction. But, like a World Series title, narrative nonfiction is not all that easy to produce.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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