By John Perrotto
DALLAS — Nate McLouth didn’t click his heels three times and re-sign with the Pirates. It just seemed that way.
The Pirates signed the outfielder and left-hander Erik Bedard as free agents on Wednesday, the final full day of the Winter Meetings. Bedard will have a $4.5 million salary in 2012 while McLouth will get $1.75 million.
The Pirates also signed Jose Morales to a minor-league contract to compete with Michael McKenry for the backup catching job behind Rod Barajas.
The Pirates dropped catcher Jason Jaramillo and infielder Pedro Ciriaco off the 40-man roster to clear spots for Bedard and McLouth.
The only bit of bad news for the Pirates was that, barring a surprise change of heart, free agent first baseman Derrek Lee planned to turn down the club’s offer of salary arbitration at the midnight deadline.
“Dorothy was able to go home again, so why not Nate McLouth?,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
McLouth played for the Pirates from 2005-09, winning a National League Gold Glove and playing in an All-Star Game in 2008 before being traded to Atlanta. While his story was the best one of the day concerning the Pirates, Bedard figures to make a bigger impact next season if he can stay healthy.
Bedard, 32, has been plagued by injuries late in the 2007 season when he went 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA in 28 starts with Baltimore and underwent shoulder surgeries in both 2008 and 2009. Traded to Seattle after the 2007 season, he has made just 54 starts in the last three years, including eight this year with Boston, after being dealt by the Mariners.
Bedard missed the 2010 season and has made just 54 starts in the last four years. However, he has pitched well when healthy, going 16-16 with a 3.41 ERA and per nine averages of 7.8 hits, 3.7 walks and 8.8 strikeouts.
Last season, he was a combined 5-9 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 starts with the Mariners and Red Sox. His fastball averaged 90.8 mph, less than 1 mph slower than his fine ’07 season.
“We realize there is some risk with this signing but the only injury problems he had last season were with his knees,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. “We feel there is some real
upside in this signing. He may not throw as hard as he did a few years ago but he still has good stuff and he has the potential to really help us.”
Bedard said he felt strong at the end of the season and was confident he could make it through a full season.
Hurdle stopped short of saying Bedard would be the No. 1 starter as the lone left-hander in the rotation that figures to include right-handers Charlie Morton (if recovered from October hip surgery), James McDonald, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens.
“We just want him to pitch,” Hurdle said, before adding “we’re not bringing him as an independent contractor here. He’s going to be the veteran of the pitching staff and guys are going to look up to him and he goes about his business. He welcomes the opportunity to be a veteran leader.”
McLouth will be a backup to left fielder Alex Presley, center fielder Andrew McCutchen and right fielder Jose Tabata. However, Huntington and Hurdle plan to keep McLouth busy.
“There are going to enough at-bats for Nate to pick up all around the outfield,” Huntington said. “He’ll help us give guys off at all three positions and he’ll be ready to play regularly if any of our outfielders get injured.”
McLouth’s career has gone downhill since he was traded as he hit .229 with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs in 250 games and 1,005 plate appearances.
“If I could put my finger on what happened in Atlanta, I would have fixed it,” McLouth said. “I can’t say enough good things about the Braves. They are great people to work with but it just didn’t work out. “I’m thrilled to come back to Pittsburgh. The Pirates were the first team to call when I became a free agent and I’m excited about coming home again. Signing with the Pirates was the easiest decision of my lfie.”
While McLouth’s return to the Pirates may not be as dramatic as Dorothy’s return to Kansas was in the Wizard of Oz, Hurdle believes coming back to a familiar setting could restart the 30-year-
old’s career.
“I’ve seen it before,” Hurdle said. “It’s a situation where a player can feel empowered, not feel the anxiety of having to prove things.”
The switch-hitting Morales, 28, is an offense-first catcher who has hit .289 with a .365 on-base percentage in 96 games and 252 plate appearances over parts of four major-league seasons with Minnesota (2007, 2009-10 ) and Colorado (2011). Last season, he hit .267 in 22 games with the Rockies.
“Jose brings some things to the table that (McKenry) doesn’t and vice versa,” Huntington said. “We’ll let them compete in spring training and see where it goes.”
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball since 1988.