Spring training | Pirates' preparation for 2014 marked by optimism, tough roster calls

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 28, 2014 

BRADENTON -- As special as 2013 was for the Pittsburgh Pirates, manager Clint Hurdle had a message for his players during the early days of this spring training.

Get over it.

Well, Hurdle chose kinder and gentler words than that. The reigning National League Manager of the Year told the team it was time to turn the page and build on last year's stirring summer, which included the franchise's first winning record and playoff appearance since 1992.

So did they respond?

"Through spring training, we've done an extremely good job of it. The season will be the next challenge," said Hurdle, whose Pirates open the regular season March 31 at PNC Park against the Chicago Cubs. "These men have showed up professional. Yes. Absolutely. Someone asked (a player), 'Getting ready for the season?' Guy said, 'Stop right there -- we're going in ready.' That's just their mindset, their mindset with everything they do."

Training camp had a different feel this spring for the Pirates, a byproduct of last year's return to relevance. National baseball writers were seen all over McKechnie Field and Pirate City, picking Hurdle's brain before parking themselves near the locker of Andrew McCutchen, who won the league's MVP award last year and hit .465 with five home runs and nine RBIs this spring.

It's McCutchen's team now. He's the face of the franchise and the anchor of an outfield that could be among the game's elite when top prospect Gregory Polanco gets promoted to Pittsburgh, which is expected to happen sometime this summer.

"He's always been a confident man, and I think with the success he's continued to have there could be more confidence brewing. There's leadership growing," Hurdle said. "He's still growing. ... I do believe he feels there's more in front of him.

"He's got a good swing; he's in a good place."

The Pirates' gave McCutchen a six-year extension during the spring of 2012 and did the same Thursday with left fielder Starling Marte, a Gold Glove finalist last season.

Locking up Marte for $31 million was just another sign that this spring felt different than past ones, McCutchen said.

"He's set to be here, and the Pirates know they're going to have him here too," McCutchen said Thursday, when the Pirates played their Grapefruit League finale against the New York Yankees. "It's good that it's happening, and hopefully we can keep the same thing going around this clubhouse. ... It's something that didn't happen before. It's starting to happen here. You would think that would come with what we've done the past year and what we're looking to do."

The Pirates entered camp with all the positions settled except first base and right field, and those questions have been answered: Jose Tabata and Travis Snyder will play right, though Hurdle said it won't be a straight platoon; and after rookie Andrew Lambo struggled and was sent down to Triple-A, Gaby Sanchez is the team's starting first baseman. Travis Ishikawa is the perceived backup, though similar to right field, the starting first baseman sounds as if he will chosen be on a game-by-game basis.

"At first and in right, barring any changes, it'll be a matchup situation with Clint," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Clint will take the guy who gives us the best chance to help our team win that game. There's going to be some opportunities where we're right on right and some opportunities when we're left on left. Clint and Banny (bench coach Jeff Bannister) and the staff will get together and put together the lineup that has the best chance to win that night."

Sanchez hit .310 this spring.

"He's a quiet, steady presence in everything we do," Hurdle said. "He's confident, as well. He knows he has a value, has a role to play. And he wants more. This spring has been a productive spring for him as far as the work that needs to be done and the focus on the work that needs to be done."

Ishikawa, 29, was a non-roster invitee who is hitting .276. A career .260 hitter, Ishikawa won a World Series ring with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 and has spent time with the Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles and Yankees.

"Travis had a nice spring," Huntington said. "He gives you a professional at-bat and handles himself well around the base."

The biggest injury this spring came at the expense of backup catcher Chris Stewart, who underwent surgery after hurting his right knee and is expected to miss four to six weeks. That means former Bradenton Marauder Tony Sanchez will make the Opening Day roster after his 22-game stint with the Pirates last year.

"He did a great job when he got called up last year," starting catcher Russell Martin said. "In my mind, he's a big-league catcher. The only thing that's keeping him out of the big leagues right now is ... me."

The Pirates' starting rotation received good news Wednesday when Francisco Liriano told reporters he felt no pain in his groin after throwing 55 pitchers at McKechnie Field. Scheduled to start Opening Day, Liriano left last Thursday's start against Baltimore after experiencing tightness in his left groin.

Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez and Gerrit Cole follow Liriano, with Edinson Volquez in the fifth slot.

Morton and Cole, who teamed for 20 wins in 39 starts last year, didn't break camp with the team in 2013. Morton was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and Cole was in Triple-A. And Rodriguez was limited to 12 starts with left forearm injury.

But perhaps the biggest sign the Pirates are different than in years past lies in the quality of the players who didn't make team, guys like Jaff Decker, Chris Dickerson and Michael Martinez. All of them had fine springs but were optioned out of big-league camp.

Making the Pirates' 25-man roster isn't as easy as it used to be. And springtime at McKechnie Field isn't what it used to be either.

"If you're a good organization, the decisions should get tougher," Hurdle said the day the Pirates cut 11 players. "That's the most challenging day I've had professionally -- 11 men, the volume and the quality. ... It's a tangible sign for the organization. It's not going to make any of those men feel better, but it means we have strength and we have depth that we never had before."

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