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Pirates' Martin catches on quickly

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013,
Christopher Horner
Pirates catcher Russell Martin talks with pitcher A.J. Burnett after the two worked out together in the bullpen at Pirate City on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 in Bradenton, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates catcher Russell Martin (left) greets pitcher A.J. Burnett after the two worked out together in the bullpen at Pirate City on Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Hurdle video promo. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

BRADENTON, Fla. — There's a game Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett likes to play with catchers during spring training.

The rules are simple. When no one expects it, Burnett fires one of his nasty curveballs into the dirt. It's up to the guy squatting behind the plate to snag it, or at least block it from going to the backstop.

It's Burnett's way of testing and getting in sync with a catcher. How agile is he? How quick? How reliable?

“For pitchers, it's about confidence,” Burnett said. “Can I trust this guy? OK, I'll throw a hook here and let's see if he can block it.”

It makes no difference if the catcher is a rookie or a veteran, everyone has to play. Rod Barajas passed the test last year and won Burnett's confidence. During the first workout at Pirate City on Tuesday, it was Russell Martin's turn.

Martin caught Burnett's bullpen session and handled everything the right-hander threw at him. When it was over, there was a handshake, a fist bump and smiles.

Things went smoothly in part because Martin has caught Burnett before. In 2011, they were New York Yankees teammates.

“He prepares well, and he plays hard,” Burnett said. “He's going to help us out. He's going to be quicker to second (base), he's just as good defensively as Rod, and he's going to swing the bat a little bit. As far as what he brings to the team, as far as energy and heart, he comes to play the game.”

Burnett was traded to the Pirates before last season. In November, when most free agents were still mulling offers, Martin signed a two-year, $17 million contract.

Finding a starting catcher was the Pirates' top offseason priority, and Martin reaped the richest free-agent contract in club history. The timing was perfect: Martin became a free agent just as the Yankees became more budget conscious, and the Pirates wound up with a quick acquisition.

“Pittsburgh had, hands down, the best deal available,” Martin said. “And the Yankees, from what I was told, their hands were tied and they didn't have the money yet to offer me. They probably were working on other things. It was hard to decline or to be patient when (the Pirates' offer) was available.”

Not even the Pirates' 20-year string of losing seasons was enough to deter Martin from signing.

“Everybody's in first place right now. That's the way I see it,” Martin said. “It's a new year. Whatever happened in the past, you can't change it. But what you can do is get your mind right and ready for the season coming up. If we all do that, we can change history.”

Martin knows the first and most important thing he can do in camp is build relationships with the pitchers. He spent the past three months studying video of their mannerisms, arsenals and approaches.

On March 2, Martin will leave camp for a week or two and play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. That means his hands-on work with the Pirates' staff will have to be a crash course.

“It's tough to do in a short period of time,” Martin said, “but this is better than when you're traded during the season and you have to learn the pitching staff in a day.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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