Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Camp Battles Come In Focus

The Pirates wanted to fill in around the edges this year; their camp battles are for the bench, bridge relievers, and a fifth starter. We're guessing that within ten days, the Bucs will be close to making their final cuts. Today we'll look at how the bench competition is shaping up to date.

Josh Rodriguez has done his part as a Rule 5 player in camp, hitting the ball some (.267 BA) and showing patience and a good eye (.421 OBP).

But Pedro Ciriaco has flashed all the tools - his fielding has been sharp, his arm is the talk of camp, he's shown that he can play third along with the middle infield spots, he's run well, and most importantly, he's making contact (.370 BA with just 3 whiffs, though without a walk yet, which is a problem). Ciriaco is also going to get an outfield shot, and if successful in the pasture, that move would both improve his chances of a roster spot and clear a pure batter's slot for the bench.

Corey Wimberly is a lightning bolt in spikes, his bat has come alive this week, and he can back up McCutch and Jose Tabata as a speed OF'er. But his problem is that he hasn't flashed much leather playing the middle, and that's key; one of these three guys has to be able to give Ronny Cedeno and Neil Walker a blow while giving the pitching staff a fighting chance in the field.

We're not ready to declare Ciriaco the winner yet. The fact that he has an option remaining and Rodriguez has to be returned if he doesn't make the big team means that not only does Pedro have to win the competition, but convincingly. But as of now, he's ahead of the pack.

From what we've seen so far, John Bowker looks like he's got the edge for the second bench slot. He's shown some power and would provide a lefty off the bench when Garrett Jones is playing. Also, he's out of options.

But he hasn't separated himself that much from Steve Pearce and Andy Marte to count on going north yet. Pearce has a little more versatility since he's added a third baseman's mitt to his bag and is easily the best fielder of the corner hopefuls. His stick has been so-so (.259 BA, .300 OBP) but he's been banging out two-baggers (4). Andy Marte has helped himself by smacking the ball at a .421 clip and is currently tied with Pedro Alvarez for the team lead in doubles (5) with half the at-bats.

Garrett Atkins has cooled off after a hot start (.154 BA, .214 OBP) but his connections to Hurdle and veteran presence may earn him a longer look. Josh Fields, the pre-season favorite to earn a spot, has been disappointing so far in both the field and plate. The iron glovework isn't very surprising, but the .182 BA with no extra base hits is. His stick is his meal ticket, and so far his lumber hasn't played out in camp.

Logically, two out the trio of Bowker-Pearce-Marte should make the team, and you can include Rodriguez in the mix. But with Ryan Doumit out with an oblique strain and Chris Snyder again having back issues, the Bucs' hand may be forced to carry an extra catcher, at least early in the year.

Jason Jaramillo and Dusty Brown, to their credit, have both come to camp ready to dispel their good glove, weak bat reps. JJ is hitting .533 and Brown .368 in limited opportunities; we expect to see them both get a lot of work in the coming few days.

None of the above players have option problems except for Rodriguez; Pearce and Jaramillo each have one left, and the others are in camp on minor-league deals.

The next week-to-ten-days will help cull the herd. But the results may be out of the players' hands. The catching situation and options issue may become determining factors.

But give the FO some credit this year; they've finally divorced themselves from the over-the-hill vet philosophy and opened a couple of spots, albeit on the bench, for guys climbing the hill instead of tumbling down it.

The only weakness we see so far is that with Alex Presley and Gorkys Hernandez assigned to Indy while Wimberly seemingly is on his way to join them, there's no experienced backup for McCutch and Tabata. If they play 150 games apiece, no problem; otherwise, it could be a hole, depending on whether Ciriaco sticks and how fast a learner he is. But a step at a time...

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