March 2012

It’s official: Morton DL-bound

Right-hander Charlie Morton’s inability to reach his target of pitches in Wednesday night’s start confirmed the Pirates’ intent to have him begin the season on the disabled list.

General manager Neal Huntington formally laid out plans for Morton, who had hoped to make 90 pitches against the Rays but left the game after 75 pitches and five innings, during which he allowed six runs and eight hits.

Morton’s surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left hip was on October 10, and his prognosis for full recovery from that procedure was estimated at six months. He’ll hit the six-month mark on April 10 — a few days before the Pirates would need a fifth starter in back of the season-opening rotation of Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald and Kevin Correia.

Conceding Morton’s tremendous progress to reach this point, Huntington and on-field personnel have mapped out an agenda for him to reach game-ready condition.

Morton will stay behind in Florida to pitch a simulated game on Wednesday. He will join the club for the next afternoon’s Opening Day festivities in PNC Park, then make a start with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians on April 9 before being re-evaluated.

“We saw he was very clean early (in the Wednesday night start against the Rays), and the one inning (the fourth, when he faced seven batters) kind of fatigued him, and he wasn’t as sharp,” said manager Clint Hurdle. “He has more work to do. Guys gotta go through certain periods. A side isn’t the same as a game. He’s got to find that ability to be stronger, to repeat his deliveries.”

Four reassigned — Juan still Cruz-ing

And then there was one — the keeper.

The Pirates on Thursday morning reassigned four non-roster players to their Minor League camp, all but relief pitcher Juan Cruz, who remained in line to be added to the 25-man roster as well as to Clint Hurdle’s bullpen.

Reassigned were right-hander Ryota Igarashi, who had begun camp in competition with Cruz for a relief role, catchers Eric Fryer and Jake Fox, and first baseman Nick Evans.

With the moves, the Bucs have 30 active players remaining in camp, including 29 rostered players.
Igarashi started off on even footing with Cruz, but an inability to keep his pitches down gradually eroded his effectiveness. In nine appearances covering 9 1/3 innings, he allowed 15 hits and nine earned runs.

Evans (.111) and Fox (.269) both had their moments, but didn’t produce consistently.

Fryer was getting increased support for possibly wresting the back-up catching job from Michael McKenry. But while Fryer batted .318 to McKenry’s .217 and was his peer defensively, the staff had to respect the experience McKenry gained last season, when he also established good rapport with a number of the team’s pitchers.

Come up against Bucs, and watch the shift fly

When the Buccos checked into Pirate City in mid-February, the first thing they saw was the “Grit Happens” tee-shirt hanging in everyone’ds locker.

Clint Hurdle has to add another tee-shirt to his line: “Shift Happens.”

The Pirates are binging on that infield shift against left-handed pull hitters, and the strategy is working brilliantly.

On Tuesday, Yamaico Navarro threw out the Phillies’ Jim Thome from the right-field warning track; okay, just kidding, but the second baseman fielded Thome’s smash in serious shallow right and threw him out.

In tonight’s game, Neil Walker was about 185 feet from the plate when he handled Carlos Pena’s first-inning grounder and easily got him at first — then did the exact same thing again in the third. The Pirates also shifted for Luke Scott, but he struck out against Charlie Morton.

P.A.: Stand for Premonition Announcement

Everyone in the house giggled when a P.A. announcement in the first inning cautioned fans of the chance the game in Bright House Network Field ending in a tie, due to the availability of pitchers. Then the Pirates plated four in the eighth to make it 4-4, where it still stood with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and no one was snickering at the P.A. announcer any more. That was before Scott Podsednik had the last laugh with his trot-off blow against Daniel Moskos. … 

The parlay most fans around the nation have a hard time wrapping their minds around: The Bucs make an early cut of Sterling Marte, even though he was killing it in Grapefruit play, yet at the same time pledge allegiance to Pedro Alvarez, who is getting killed.

My take: Immense props to Neal Huntington, who knows he is not making the easy calls, the decisions that would be popular, reflect fans’ sentiments and earn him brownie points. Thus, he must be convinced the moves he is making will prove to be the right ones. Everyone else will just have to wait and let it play out. … 

Know how you can tell a baseball player in the Florida Spring Break crowd? He is the one with the pasty skin. Or, at most, the farmer’s tan. They are here to work on fundamentals, not a tan. … 

Let’s hope this is what Spring Training is for: The Bucs know they will have to win with fundamentals and small ball — but have committed 29 errors, allowed 17 unearned runs and been caught stealing 10 times.

Yamaico talks — then ropes

Kristy Robinson (of Pirates Prospects) and I interviewed Yamaico Navarro a few minutes prior to Thursday’s game — then he went out and had three knocks against the Rays, including a home run, and drove in three runs.

The game ended with Navarro on deck, leaving us quite conflicted. We were concerned that if Navarro got up again and came through with a game-winner, he would insist on talking to us just prior to every game this season. And we’re busy people, people. … 

There isn’t anyone in the Pirates’ clubhouse who looks like a baseball player more than Matt Hague. …

Casey McGehee, who had been aware that I’ve been tracking those weird splits that had him hitless while playing first base, gave me a high-five as I walked into the clubhouse in the morning, exclaiming, “Twice on base while at first!” He’d walked in his first at-bat against Boston’s Jon Lester on Wednesday, and followed that with a roped single. …

If you can get to any Pirates game early — say, when the PNC Park gates open — do it! The Bucs are one of the few Major League teams which occasionally still take pre-game fielding. And there’s only one thing possibly more impressive than Major Leaguers taking infield — that would be the Cirque du Soleil people taking infield. That’s not gonna happen, so this is as good as it gets. … 

Baby steps out of the shadows: Andrew McCutchen’s part in the new MLB ad campaign for the onrushing season is a start. He shares the 29-second spot with the likes of Justin Verlander, Matt Kemp, Evan Longoria and Jose Bautista. … 

One of the reasons any season-opening decision on Pedro Alvarez will be tough is: He is a terrific defensive third baseman, and that itself figures to be very important to the still-mostly pitch-to-contact rotation. He may not look it — but Alvarez is as good at charging a roller and making the barehanded pick-and-throw as anyone I’ve seen. And his arm is very accurate. … 

 

First best call of the year

Before Nate McLouth even stepped into the batter’s box against Andrew Bailey in the seventh inning of today’s game, Pirates media relations maven Jim Trdinich announced loudly in the press box: “Here it comes, two-run homer for Nate!”

Three pitches later, McLouth lost a ball over the right field fence to turn a 4-5 deficit into a 6-5 win over Boston. Making the call even better: It was the first time McLouth had ever faced Bailey, so it was all instinct, no history. … 

The Pirates will have two off-days around their first three games of the season, but manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t yet know whether they’ll leave the gate with three starters — which would allow the Opening Day choice to also pitch Game No. 4 on regular five days’ rest — or go with four and give everyone an extra day between their first two starts. … 

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Jeff Clement. Considering he spent most of last season rehabbing from yet another left-knee surgery, he is actually looking forward to resuming regular play in Triple-A to prove his health and earn another chance. Have never seen anyone so happy to be reassigned to Minor League camp, where he knows he’ll get a tougher physical test than he would’ve by remaining an occasional player in the big-league camp. … 

A new guest checked into my Bradenton-area hotel today: The D-Train, Dontrelle Willis, pulled into the station, reporting to the Orioles, who picked him up following the left-hander’s release by the Phillies. … 

Burnett pitches — and catches

Pirates brass won’t let on, lest they come off as unreasonably eager, but everyone is delighted that A.J. Burnett is already throwing bullpens. They didn’t think they’d see him back on a mound, even for a side session, only 15 days after his eye-orbital surgery. …

A.J. was practicing his fishing technique in the clubhouse the other day, casting his rod across the room into teammates’ lockers. Caught a Reebok and a Converse, far as I could tell. …

GM Neal Huntington, as Starling Marte was giving teammates so-long handshakes on his way to Pirate City: “I don’t want to come across as negative, but 25 at-bats doesn’t mean he’s ready for the Major Leagues, as good as those 25 at-bats were. Spring Training is Spring Training. We need to make decisions with our heads.” …

Huntington called Gorkys Hernandez, also ticketed for Indianapolis, “our best defensive outfielder.” The bat still hasn’t caught up. …

The Pirates spent part of the morning practicing their win-celebration leaps. At least, that’s how it looked as players whopped it up after particularly good plays during game-situation drills. Pedro Alvarez’s leap in fine form. Clint Barmes needs more work. …

Players in the clubhouse — obviously caught up in the iPad4 frenzy — mercilessly rode one teammate when he pulled out an original iPad. “And there’s the iPad One,” Alvarez called out. “Does that thing work as a VCR?” “Dude, you don’t even have a camera on that?” Daniel McCutchen asked the victim, who shall remain nameless to protect the tech-challenged. …

Last spring, Aroldis Chapman was tooling around Phoenix in his Ferrari with the “102 MPH” vanity plates. Does he now have to get new plates that say “92-95MPH”? …

Burnett was “not really” surprised that former Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte decided to become an En-Core member. “I know he loves the game. And the way he finished up (in 2010), I think he’s got a little left in the tank,” Burnett said. … 

D. Cabrera: Stick with Bucs in Minors?

Manager Clint Hurdle declined to comment on MLB’s recent decision to hold off on expanding use of instant replay in 2012. “I’ll share my thoughts with the people who can do something about the thoughts, and that’s where I have to keep them,” Hurdle told reporters.

The relevance is that the memorable (forgettable?) Jerry Meals call had a lot to do with raising a new chorus for the use of replay beyond determining home-run calls. … 

Daniel Cabrera finally made it to the mound and put a zero up against the Twins. Too little, too late? Not for the former Orioles righty to claim a place in the Pirates organization. But he’ll have to decide whether to accept a Minor League assignment, or try his luck with another organization.

Hurdle on Cabrera, who’d been out this spring with forearm tightness and missed al of last season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery: “You want to be optimistic, but have to be realistic. We knew it was a longshot. We like having him in the organization, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. He’s had success in the big leagues and the arm is still alive. There’s more there than what we’ve seen so far. He’s got a presence; he lets it fly.” … 

Juan Cruz, another non-roster righty, has a far better chance of not only sticking, but landing a very important role in thew bullpen. The staff loves his experience, assortment of pitches and nerve.

“He still has velocity and movement,” Hurdle said of the reliever. “He’s got two put-away pitches, the fastball and can spin a change up there. He’s got the confidence to throw breaking stuff behind in the count.” … 

Let’s compare apples and oranges: Bucs have scored 28 runs in consecutive games. Most runs in back-to-back games last season: 17, June 1-2 (9-3 win and 9-8 loss at the Mets). … 

McLouth chases Bracket glory

You can root for your guy — Nate McLouth, representing the Pirates — in an MLB.com NCAA Tournament smackdown featuring a representative of all 30 Major League teams.

McLouth’s competition includes the Rockies’ Jason Giambi, The Orioles’ Mark Reynolds and the Uptons, Justin of Arizona and B.J. of the Rays. …

Gerrit Cole pitched three innings in a Pirate City camp game on Tuesday, maxed out at 98 mph on the radar — and afterward mentioned that he was holding back. Nice to be able to dial it down and still come within two notches of triple-digits. …

Incidentally, Cole’s slider clocked 91 mph. …

While the rest of the Pirates are in Fort Myers tomorrow to face the Twins, Erik Bedard will be in Pirate City starting a Triple-A game. Bedard’s last start had been against Minnesota and with his turn coming up again, this gives him a chance to deal with some different looks. …

Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen may be a keeper 1-2-3 combo atop the Pirates’ lineup. Don’t think there is another team using its outfielders as the first three hitters in the order.

The Hague skips The Netherlands

Matt Hague not on Pirates’ travel squad for today’s International Baseball Tournament game in St. Petersburg. Which is strange. I thought he’d want to capitalize on The Netherlands’ pitching. …

Proving that they are inseparable, Michael McKenry is going to St. Pete to catch Jeff Karstens, who is starting that unofficial game. …

Did I just imagine A.J. Burnett walking around the clubhouse humming Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes?” … 

Neil Walker is back in the lineup for today’s main attraction, Phillies at McKechnie. Batting No. 4. … 

Starling Marte sporting a big ice pack on his right arm. Hmmm, probably just typical care, but will have to look into it. … 

 

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