Monday, March 7, 2011

Camp Battles

Going into camp, there wasn't much mystery as to the core of the team. The position players were set, four of the five rotation spots were filled, and the back end of the bullpen was in place.

Even though they were just looking to fill in at the fringes, the FO did bring in some competition for the spots from outside the organization, mostly young and with some pedigree if not much in the way of MLB production, a departure from their vet career-backup philosophy of the past.

It appears that the final pitching spots may go down to the wire; nobody has really jumped up and grabbed a stranglehold on them yet.

Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln have shown signs that they may be capable of taking the fifth turn while Scott Olsen has yet to throw a spring pitch in anger, although he may be back by the weekend. Our sole insight so far is that Morton is the only one out of options, so we'd wager it's his job to lose.

There's no chance for a break-out hotshot like Rudy Owens or Justin Wilson heading north in April. If the aforementioned three all bomb, Hurdle will hand the ball to old dependables Brian Burres and Jeff Karstens and let the pups hone their craft in the minors for at least a while.

As for the bullpen, the posse of candidates vying to provide a bridge to Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan have yet to give us a reason to believe. Of course, none of them have worked much yet, either. The one minor-league guy who has taken advantage of the opportunity so far is Mike Crotta; in four appearances covering six frames, he has yet to yield a run.

But the bench spots feature some interesting arm-wrestling matches. For the corner infielders, the Pirates have Steve Pearce, back from surgery and taking balls at third base, and brought in Josh Fields, Andy Marte and Garrett Atkins, all guys who can go long.

Atkins is getting the longest look in the field and the majority of swings, and has a prior relationship with Hurdle from their Colorado days. Of the other three, only Marte is hitting the ball. But - and this is a big but - none of that trio has over eight at-bats so far.

This one has all the earmarks of going down to the wire. None are hindered by option problems. The three newcomers signed minor-league contracts, and Pearce has one option remaining.

The middle infielder slot looks like a duel between Josh Rodriguez and Pedro Ciriaco. Corey Wimberly, with his plus speed and ability to step into the OF for McCutch or Jose Tabata, has been fighting the ball in the infield and at the plate in the early sledding. He's running out of time to convince the brass that he's their man.

In the first couple of weeks, both Rodriguez and Ciriaco have gotten on base enough - their OBP is over .380 - and Ciriaco has the better glove and more speed. Rodriguez is considered closer to MLB-ready, but hasn't shown a lot of leather at short yet. He's projected as a second baseman.

When it comes to rug cutting time, Josh is a Rule 5 player and has to be returned to Cleveland if he doesn't make the big team, while Pedro has an option. And it may come down to that. To make the evaluation a little trickier, Rodriguez has quad problems and will be on ice for a few days.

The last bench spot is a poser; it could be an outfielder or a third catcher. Ryan Doumit is the linchpin here. John Bowker and Alex Presley are the OF candidates. Bowker has the better bat and some pop as a corner OF'er, but Presley can step into center or left if needed.

The catchers vying for the third spot behind Chris Snyder and Doumit are Jason Jaramillo and Dusty Brown, both good glove, questionable stick guys.

There are a lot of moving parts to this decision. Doumit can be a fifth OF'er if needed, but Bowker and Presley are better bets as pinch-hitters than the backstop guys and better gloves than Dewey.

If they keep a third catcher, Doumit can pinch hit; if they don't, Bowker could be the lefty off the bench. Of the group, Presley has the best wheels and can play anywhere in the pasture.

Bowker is the only guy without options; Brown signed a minor-league deal while Jaramillo and Presley have options left. This may be one decision that's mostly out of the players' hands and dependent on Doumit's role, if he lasts through the spring.

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