Optimistic Pirates wrap up 50th spring in Bradenton ready for Opening Day

Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Corey Dickerson connects during the first inning of Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at LECOM Park.
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Corey Dickerson connects during the first inning of Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at LECOM Park.

With Monday’s home game against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pirates wrapped up the LECOM Park portion of their 50th spring in Bradenton.

This year’s camp in the “Friendly City” began about six weeks ago with several new faces.

The Pirates traded the face of the franchise, veteran center fielder Andrew McCutchen, to the San Francisco Giants, and traded starting pitcher Gerrit Cole to the World Series champion Houston Astros.

Disgruntled fans voiced their opinions on those moves and that carried over to the LECOM Park spring opener against the New York Yankees.

A pregame ceremony to commemorate Pittsburgh’s 50th spring in Bradenton, which featured a video package, saw boos ring out at owner Bob Nutting when his name was announced during the festivities.

Pirates right-hander Trevor Williams worked into the third inning Monday against the Phillies in his final start of the spring. Tiffany Tompkins

That anger or criticism is likely to continue after the moves Pittsburgh made Monday to whittle the roster to 25 players ahead of Thursday’s opening day against the Detroit Tigers.

None of the players acquired in the McCutchen trade will make the opening day roster after relief pitcher Kyle Crick was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.

“It’s a fair one,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said before Monday’s 6-3 loss to Philadelphia. “We understand that. It would have been easy to put Kyle on the club, because of who he was traded for. But we took the players that we felt put us in the best position to win games early in the season.

“Kyle is going to help us. Our belief is still there. He’s going to be a really good major-league reliever for years to come. Bryan Reynolds (also acquired in the McCutchen trade) is a young prospect that we think the world of.”

Still, the spring, while seemingly long, was one of optimism for the Bucs and Huntington.

Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison went 0-for-3 during Monday’s loss to the Phillies and is hitting .209 with one spring training game to go. Tiffany Tompkins

“Forty-five days, which it feels like it’s been 120 at times,” the general manager joked. “The health of (top prespect) Austin Meadows, the athlete that showed up and the baseball player that showed up again. That was fun to see. The belief in this camp is fun to hear. Our guys, their belief in each other, their belief that we can do some special things this year.”

Huntington said the pitching staff has a lot of good arms, despite not having the spring statistics they were looking for. He also said they haven’t played well enough this spring for the wins (11-19-2 record heading into Tuesday’s spring finale in Clearwater against the Phillies) to show up, but there have been a lot of good things this spring.

With Monday’s moves, Pittsburgh’s 25-man roster is all but settled. Huntington confirmed the Pirates will go with an eight-man bullpen as they head north. That also means a four-man bench.

One of the relievers making the club, provided there aren’t any injuries or waiver wire additions between now and opening day, is left-hander Josh Smoker.

“We showed we are a lot better than what people are giving us credit for,” Smoker said prior to Monday’s LECOM Park finale in front of 6,529 fans. “We’re a young team. We’re an athletic team. I know statistically a lot of people go by salary, what guys are making, and statistic-wise. But you can’t really put a price or a brand on guys and playing hard every day, and feeling like they have something to prove.”

Smoker, who is one of several new faces this season, said he liked the team bonding activities this spring with the Pirates, which included the Chopped-inspired cooking competition, the sports heroes cards and a dominoes tournament.

Pirates first baseman Josh Bell had one hit in two at-bats Monday against the Phillies to raise his spring average to .292. Tiffany Tompkins

“It makes for a really fun spring training,” Smoker said.

Smoker, a Georgia native, picked former Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz as his sports hero based on identifying with Smoltz going from starter to reliever and battling through injuries, just as he has.

In addition to the team building exercises, Smoker enjoyed seeing the offense in good form this spring.

Heading into Tuesday’s spring finale, the Pirates have belted 45 home runs, two shy of the unofficial club record of 47 in 2006.

“It seems like if you don’t have a team that doesn’t hit a lot of home runs, it’s going to be hard to be successful,” Smoker said. “And then you see guys just launching balls. I’m not talking about wall scrapers. There were guys hitting absolute bombs this year. It was fun to see.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had some takeaways from camp, too.

“Our team is ready to play,” Hurdle said. “Now the season’s going to start. The games are going to count and we’re going to be judged on our play. I think we’re all looking forward to that, and I think we are all looking forward to a change of scenery as well. The effort was there. The intensity was there. And time to play ball.”