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Pirates' focus shifts to signing second baseman Walker

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. — After locking up center fielder Andrew McCutchen through at least 2017, the Pirates can focus on a possible long-term deal with other core players, such as second baseman Neil Walker.

"Obviously, it's a part of our plan," general manager Neal Huntington said Tuesday. "It's got to be a shared compromise. When there's been interest by both parties and they've both been willing to share that risk, we've been able to reach agreements."

The Pirates and Walker's camp have been talking for more than a year, but they have made little progress. Walker will be a Super Two player after this season, meaning he'll have enough service time to get an extra year of arbitration eligibility.

Walker is not necessarily counting on getting a long-term deal. Even if he doesn't, he would be in line for substantial raises through arbitration.

"I'm planning to play out my four years of arbitration eligibility," Walker said. "That's where my focus is. I'm focused on helping this team win. That's where we are unless something else comes along."

Would Walker be comfortable going year to year in arbitration?

"I'm not going to answer that," Walker said. "But I'm preparing myself as though that's the case. That's where we are."

Yesterday morning, owner Bob Nutting said McCutchen's $51.5 million, six-year deal was "a huge step forward" as the Pirates try to lock up their core players. While the move will please the fans, Nutting said that was not the team's motivation.

"I hope we never fall into the trap of signing a player just to make a statement," Nutting said. "This was done because it was the right thing for the organization with exactly the right player."

A few minutes before he figuratively opened his wallet and handed McCutchen the second-largest contract in team history — only Jason Kendall's six-year, $60 million deal in 2000 was more lucrative — Nutting recalled a batting practice session a few days ago at the team's spring training complex. He watched as McCutchen launched long fly balls off A.J. Burnett, who'd just arrived in a headline-grabbing trade with the New York Yankees. One field over, Starling Marte, who looks to be the Pirates' next star outfielder, faced Gerrit Cole, the top overall pick in the 2011 draft.

"I thought to myself, You can see the talent — the talent that's already here and the talent that's on the way," Nutting said.

McCutchen probably will get a chance to play in the majors with both Marte and Cole. The contract he signed yesterday guarantees McCutchen can remain with the Pirates until at least 2017, when he will be 31 years old.

"It's definitely amazing," McCutchen said. "I'm humbled. I've always said I definitely wanted to be here. This is where I was drafted. If feels like I'm at home here."

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