Popups, Alvarez, Olsen, Nutting

Where's the ball? The wind is carrying it somewhere ...
Where's the ball? The wind is carrying it somewhere ...

BRADENTON, Fla. — Today was by far the breeziest day at Pirate City since training camp opened. What a perfect time to hold popup drills for catchers.

“We did not look at the weather forecast first,” manager Clint Hurdle said, laughing. “It’s just good karma. If you’re gonna find ways to improve, you’re always looking for ways to heighten the tension in practice. The wind showed up for us today, which heightens everybody’s tension in a fly ball priority situation.”

The catchers’ workouts were held in the right field corner on Field 2, under blue skies with scattered clouds. The drills started simply — a pitching machine fired a ball high into the air — but quickly ramped up in difficulty. By the end, coach Tom Prince was shooting up three balls in short succession for each catcher.

In the three-at-a-time drill, 20 of 21 balls were caught. The only drop was by Wyatt Toregas, who got turned around on the final ball of the day.

“Have you ever seen seven catchers this good before on the first day with popups?” Prince said, smiling.

“They looked real good,” agreed Manny Sanguillen.

For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I posted two videos of the workouts on my page.

»»» Hurdle said the intensity and degree of difficulty during all phases of daily practice will remain high. “That’s one of the elements we’re really trying to challenge the players with this spring — if you want to play in the game, you’ve got to work at practice,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, it’s done the other way. I’ve been guilty of it. What we’ve tried to do is make practice more challenging.”

Ryan Doumit shows some love for the fans at Field 1
Ryan Doumit shows some love for the fans at Field 1

»»» Catcher Ryan Doumit had an outstanding day on defense. He snagged every ball in the popup drill, even a few real toughies when the machine was cranked up all the way.

Earlier in the day, during a relay throw drill, Doumit made a nice sliding stop to get an errant throw halfway up the third base line. The crowd of fans behind the backstop applauded and Doumit stood and tipped his cap.

»»» Third baseman Pedro Alvarez sat out today;s workouts due to neck spasms. “I started feeling it after practice (Sunday),” said Alvarez, who’s listed as day to day. During fielding drills, Garrett Atkins worked at third base with the starters.

»»» Left-hander Scott Olsen (strained left hamstring) threw long toss from 60 feet. There is no timetable for when he’ll get back on the mound and start competing for the No. 5 starter job. “No need to rush it at this point and risk a more serious injury,” Olsen said.

»»» Most everyone walked around this morning with cotton balls taped to the inside of their elbows. It was blood work day.

»»» Owner Bob Nutting talked to the players for about 20 minutes this morning in a closed-door meeting. He said the message was the higher level of expectations this year.

“It’s critically important that they understand that 2011 is not going to be a year where small bits of incremental progress are adequate,” Nutting said. “Until we win a National League championship, we’re not going to be satisfied with incremental progress.”

Nutting made it clear last year’s 57-105 record was unacceptable, but did not quantify what progress means for this year.

“Whether it’s (winning) five more games or 20 more games, I don’t think a number is critical,” he said. “What’s important is we have a clear goal and we remain focused (on it).”

The rewards for making progress are obvious: longer contracts, bigger salaries and such. But Nutting did not specify what the ramifications will be — for the front office as well as the players and coaches — if progress is not made.

“It’s not the right time to start speculating on what if we fail,” Nutting said. “I saw the story about (general manager Neal Huntington’s) contract terms. That’s not productive. That’s not the right use of energy. That’s not the right place for us to focus as an organization.”

Huntington’s contract is up after this season and so far no extension has been offered. Saturday, president Frank Coonelly said Huntington’s status will be evaluated during the year.


Alvarez out with sore neck


BRADENTON, Fla. – Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez sat out today’s spring training workouts due to neck spasms.

General manager Neal Huntington did not specify how and when Alvarez was injured.

“He woke up this morning with a sore neck,” Huntington said. “He’s day to day.”

Left-hander Scott Olsen threw long toss this morning on Field 4 at Pirate City. Olsen, who’s expected to compete for the fifth starter job, has been out since last week with a strained left hamstring.

“We’re still working through it on a daily basis,” Huntington said. “We’ll let you know in a couple of days where he is (physically).”


Kartsens will get lots of work

Jeff Karstens chats this morning with owner Bob Nutting (left) and prez Frank Coonelly
Jeff Karstens chats this morning with owner Bob Nutting (left) and prez Frank Coonelly

BRADENTON, Fla. — Although righty Jeff Karstens could end up in the bullpen this season, he’ll build up innings like a starter for at least the first couple weeks of Grapefruit League games.

“We’ve got a handful of guys who are not just in that (battle) for the fifth rotation spot but could be a long man out of the pen,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’ve got to make sure that, when we get to the middle of March, they’ve got innings pitched and have had an ample opportunity to compete.

“You’ve got to pay attention to your innings; you’ve only got so many. You don’t always want to try to recreate (game action) with ‘B’ games. If you do have to go that way, you can use your older guys who have more job security (in ‘B’ games) and amp up the innings in the ‘A’ games for the guys who are in competition.”

»»» Hurdle is one of 12 new skippers this season, an unusually high amount of turnover. “There’s movement within the game and movement within leadership,” Hurdle said. “I think it runs in cycles sometimes. One of the challenges of the job is continuity and tenure.”


Yates adds change, cutter to arsenal

Tyler Yates (left) after throwing bp today
Tyler Yates (left) after throwing bp today

BRADENTON, Fla. — Early in his career, Tyler Yates threw a changeup, four-seamer and slider. But when a coach told him he only needed two pitches to work out of the bullpen, Yates junked the changeup.

Over the past few months, as he rehabbed from his second Tommy John surgery, Yates rediscovered his changeup.

“I think I’ve learned by watching other pitchers with less stuff than I have get people out and I’m like, ‘How do they do it?’ ” Yates said. “You start watching them and you see that they sink the ball a little bit more, cut the ball a little bit more, change speeds better. It’s something that I’d like to add to my repertoire, so I won’t have to throw the ball 96 mph every time out there.”

In addition to a changeup, Yates is trying to add a cutter. That would give him five pitches, including the fastball, sinker and slider.

“If I can add (the change and cutter), it would give me longevity in my career,” he said. “At 33 years old, I’m trying to get everything I can out of it.”

Today, Yates threw live batting practice on Field 2. After sitting out since May 2009 due to elbow injuries, he is eager to face hitters in a Grapefruit League game. That’s when his battle to regain a bullpen job will begin in earnest.

“First couple games, I’ll be a little nervous and excited,” he said. “But after that, hopefully, I’ll kick right back into the flow of things and do my thing. Hopefully, that’s enough to impress them so I can make the team.”

I’ll have more on Yates’ comeback attempt in tomorrow’s Trib.

»»» Owner Bob Nutting will speak during a team meeting Monday morning. He will be in town until March 7, a few days longer than in previous years.

»»» Sixteen pitchers threw live batting practice. On Field 1, Charlie Morton and Tony Watson faced Lyle Overbay and Pedro Alvarez. Jeff Karstens and Chris Resop were on Field 2 against Garrett Jones and Neil Walker. Brad Lincoln, Chris Leroux, Brian Burres, Daniel McCutchen, Sean Gallagher, Cesar Valdez, Dan Moskos, Yates, Justin Thomas, Ramon Aguero, Fernando Nieve and Bryan Morris also threw.

»»» At the end of the day, position players finished with a baserunning drill. They sprinted to first, as if on a single, then went station to station around the bases. Then they went to second as if on a double and back home, then to third as if on a triple and home.


Hurdle’s message: “All in”


BRADENTON, Fla. — Manager Clint Hurdle spoke this morning during a team meeting before the first official full-squad workout. Hurdle delivered a simple message.

“We need to focus forward,” Hurdle said. “We have work to do. We need everybody all in. We talked about trust; that’s something I’m a big believer in. There will be a group of men that turns it around here, so why can ‘t we be the start?”

President Frank Coonelly did not address the players at the meeting. Owner Bob Nutting will visit camp until next week.

»»» Fourteen pitchers threw live batting practice. On Field 1, Joel Hanrahan and Paul Maholm pitched to Lyle Overbay and Pedro Alvarez. On Field 2, Even Meek and Kevin Correia pitched to Garrett Jones and Neil Walker. Also throwing were Ross Ohlendorf, Jose Veras, James McDonald, Joe Beimel, Aaron Thompson, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke, Mike Crotta and Rudy Owens.

»»» During fielding practice on Field 2, Overbay and Garrett Atkins were at first base, Walker at second, Ronny Cedeno and Pedro Ciriaco at short and Alvarez at third.

»»» Situational hitting drills continue to be emphasized. Hurdle is pleased with the focus he’s seen from the players, even when the visible results aren’t great.

“It’s a new process for them,” Hurdle said. “If you want to go somewhere you’ve never been, there’s got to be somebody who asks you do to things you’ve never done. I’m asking them to do some things they might’ve never done. It’s not so much about results daily as the preparation that’s put in and the focus in the drill. Some of the guys haven’t (done) well in the drills and they take it personally. But they understand the reason behind it.”

»»» The Columbus (Ga.) High School baseball team shagged flies in the outfields today and will do so again Sunday. Pirates scout Jimmy Lester has a son on the team, which last year won the state title. The team is in town for a clinic and is staying in the dorms at Pirate City.

The Manatee County adult baseball league will shag Tuesday. Manatee High School’s baseball team will shag Wednesday.

»»» Thursday will be a short workout (the players have a golf event in the afternoon) and the final session at Pirate City. Friday, the team moves to McKechnie Field and will play a seven-inning game at noon against the State College of Florida.

“We’ll have a mix of players in (the lineup), but it probably will be leaning toward some of the younger guys,” Hurdle said.


No extension yet for GM


BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates president Frank Coonelly is evaluating the status of general manager Neal Huntington, but so far has not offered a contract extension.

“He is under contract for this season and it’s our expectation that Neal will be here for a long time,” Coonelly said this morning. “He has hot been extended at this point. We’ll continue to evaluate it as we move forward.”

Neal Huntington's contract is up after the 2011 season
Neal Huntington's contract is up after the 2011 season

Huntington was hired in September 2007, shortly after Coonelly joined the front office. Huntington was given a one-year extension in October 2009, but Coonelly did not make that public until eight months later.

Former manager John Russell also was given a one-year extension in October 2009. Russell was fired one day after the 2010 season.

During Huntington’s tenure, the Pirates have gone 67-95 in 2008, 62-99 in 2009 and 57-105 last year. In that span, Huntington has been busy trying to restock the farm system, which was depleted of talent in the mid-2000s.

“I’m never satisfied, but I’m certainly pleased that we’re moving quickly in the right direction,” Coonelly said. “In fact (coach) Brad Fisher, who was here when we started three years ago and is now back after being in Milwaukee for a couple years, commented to me yesterday that the talent level he sees out here is far higher than it was two years ago. We’re getting there. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re seeing players matriculate through the system and obviously many of those players are having success in the minor league system. As they develop that winning attitude and work their way up, they’ll be here in Pittsburgh with a winning attitude.”

»»» Manager Clint Hurdle spoke during a team meeting this morning in the cafeteria at Pirates City. The players then began their first official full-squad workout. Coonelly also was at the meeting, but did not address the players. Owner Bob Nutting will not visit camp until next week.

»»» What are Coonelly’s expectations for this season? “I expect to see us compete,” he said. “We’re all about doing. As Clint said to the guys, trying hard isn’t good enough. This is a doing league and it’s time for us to start doing.”

Coonelly did not want to predict a win-loss total — “I’ve gotten in trouble for that before,” he said with a laugh — but he said he expects to see “a significant improvement” over last year’s 57-105 mark. “The expectations for the club had better be championship expectations, championship mentality, championship execution. I’m confident we’re going to be far better than we’ve been the last several years.”

The collective payroll for the 40-man roster looks to be at least $45 million this year. Coonelly said resources remain if the Pirates perform well and need to add a player midway through the season. “Absolutely,” Coonelly said. “We’ve said all along that we’re looking forward to the day that we need to make that decision, and we’re prepared to make it. We’re prepared to add players if we need guys to get us over the hump.”

»»» Hurdle, Coonelly and several players are slated to attend a pep rally for the Pirates tonight on Old Main Street in downtown Bradenton.


Sluggish start at plate for Alvarez


BRADENTON, Fla. — My story today about Pedro Alvarez’s mysterious weight focused on whether or not he can do the job defensively at third base. But I’ve been asked whether a few extra pounds will hurt his offensive skills.

Hey, heavy dudes can hit. (I’m talkin’ to you, Prince Fielder.) GM Neal Huntington certainly doesn’t seem to expect a dropoff in Alvarez’s production.

“Pedro Alvarez is stronger than he’s ever been,” Huntington said. “We’re looking forward to a very productive season out of Pedro. He looks big. He looks strong and ready to do some damage with the bat.”

Alvarez has smacked some bombs during batting practice and he’s looked great during bunt drills (a skill he’ll most likely never be asked to display during an actual game).

However, not all the news is good.

During situational hitting drills today on Field 1, Alvarez was awful. There were swings and misses. There were balls hit toward the wrong spot at the wrong time. Alvarez’s body language in the cage was not happy — and neither was that of manager Clint Hurdle, who watched from a few feet away. At one point, after Alvarez fanned on a pitch, Hurdle grimaced and shook his head.

What does it mean? It’s early, so it’s hard to say if it really means anything. But it’s worth remembering as we move closer to the start of Grapefruit League games when the action — and the stakes — ramps up.

Whatever happens, there’s a good chance the Pirates will not allow Alavrez to work out on his own next offseason.

»»» Scott Olsen’s sore left hamstring will keep him off the mound for at least a week. That puts him behind Charlie Morton in the battle for the No. 5 starter job, but Hurdle declined to say just how far back Olsen will be. “We’re going to take it a day at a time,” Hurdle said. “We’ll see how it feels when he’s able to come back.”

»»» All 62 players have arrived in camp and were on the fields today at Pirate City.

»»» Ronny Cedeno checked into camp today and participated in full workouts. “We need Ronny to play with consistency,” Hurdle said. “We need him to defend well, make good decision in the infield and take more of a leadership role in the infield. Offensively, he’s got to have better quality at-bats. We’ve got to work with him to keep the ball out of the air.” More on this in tomorrow’s Trib.

»»» The three pitchers you might as well dub The Future — Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia — stood side by side and watched this morning’s workouts.

»»» Donnie Veal, on the mend from Tommy John surgery, threw a bullpen session under the watch of pitching coach Ray Searage, an athletic trainer and special assistant Kent Tekulve. “Felt fine,” Veal said. The lefty will not be game-ready until later in the season.

»»» Jose Ascanio, who had been sidelined by visa problems in Venezuela, also arrived today and threw a bullpen. “He’s out of options, so this is a big spring for him,” Huntington said.


Cutch to bat third?


BRADENTON, Fla. — The Grapefruit League opener is in eight days. Manager Clint Hurdle has been tinkering with lineups, but doesn’t want to tip his hand.

Cutch hits well in the 3 spot ... when he gets the chance.
Cutch hits well in the 3 spot ... when he gets the chance.

“We’ve had talks about lineups for a month and running,” he said. “I’m thinking about it, but no pens have been (used). All pencil work, so far.”

The biggest question is, where will Andrew McCutchen hit?

“In the past, I’ve tried to have the best hitter on the team hit third,” Hurdle said. “We’ve got a number of guys we’re talking about for that. And you don’t want to be a slave to a guy’s comfort level, but some guys have a history of performing better in some places than in others. So, it’s all taken into account.”

For what it’s worth, here are McCutchen’s career numbers:

Batting 1st:  849 plate appearances, .283  average, .831 OPS

Batting 2nd: 76 plate apps, .279 average, .723 OPS

Batting 3rd: 219 plate apps, .302 average, .824 OPS

»»» Left-hander Scott Olsen pulled his left hamstring this morning while running a fielding drill and likely will miss Friday’s workouts. “It’s just a little tweak,” Olsen said. “It’s nothing. A little cramp. I just need to drink more water.”

It’s not uncommon for cramps to pop up more frequently when the weather heats up. Today was a sunny day with the temp creeping up toward 80 degrees.

»»» If righty Charlie Morton gets the No. 5 starter job instead of Olsen, there will be just one lefty in the rotation. But that doesn’t seem to bother Hurdle. “We’re looking for starters who can get outs and pitch deep in games,” Hurdle said. “I’ve had teams that have had (lefties) and teams that haven’t had ‘em. You go with your best five guys and see where it takes you.”

»»» Outfielders Alex Presley and John Bowker checked in this morning and participated in workouts. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno and pitcher Jose Ascanio are expected to arrive tonight. That would leave only non-roster infielder Brian Friday, who is expected to arrive Friday.

»»» Players spent time working on slug-bunts, part of Hurdle’s plan to scrape up runs by any means necessary. “We’re going to have to rely on the skill sets we have — speed, surprise, variety,” Hurdle said. “We’ll take some chances. We’re not going to sit back and try to hit three-run homers.”


Hurdle’s magic number

Could 13 be a lucky number for the Pirates?
Could 13 be a lucky number for the Pirates?

BRADENTON, Fla. — It’s a good thing manager Clint Hurdle does not have triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

The Pirates’ new, bright yellow workout tops make it easy to spot Hurdle as he moves from field to field at Pirate City. When he mixes with a bunch of players or coaches, you can tell him from behind by the big number 13 on his back.

Thirteen? Who on earth wants that number?

Hurdle wore No. 10 from 1977-81 with the Kansas City Royals. When Hurdle was traded to the Reds in 1982, he asked for No. 10. “They cussed me out and said it was Sparky (Anderson’s) number,” Hurdle said. Hurdle got No. 30. The Reds eventually retired Anderson’s No. 10 in 2005.

“When I was traded again and asked for No. 10, they cussed me out again,” Hurdle said. “So finally I went to the (Mets’) equipment manager and said, ‘What’s a number that nobody wants?’ He told me, 13. I said, ‘Bring it on.’ ”

Hurdle wore 13 with the Mets in 1985 and again with the Cardinals in 1986. He finished his playing career in 1986 with the Mets wearing No. 7.

If Hurdle had taken No. 7 with the Pirates, he might not have worn it for long. It was used by Chuck Tanner, who died last week, and there is some discussion in the front office — and a strong push among the fan base — about adding it to the list of the Pirates’ retired numbers.

Infielder Josh Rodriguez, a Rule 5 pickup who would have to be returned to the Indians if he doesn’t break camp with the Pirates, currently is wearing No. 7.


Hanrahan is the closer


BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates defused talk of a spring training showdown between Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek by today naming Hanrahan the closer for the regular season.

Meek will be the primary right-handed setup man. Joe Beimel, who’s in camp as a non-roster invitee, has been assured a spot on the Opening Day roster as the lefty setup reliever.

“It was a decision they had to make,” Hanrahan said. “I didn’t sit there and talk to my mom, like, ‘I want to be the closer so bad.’ Everybody wants to be the closer. It’s not something you discuss with each other. We were waiting to see what was going to happen.”

Manager Clint Hurdle said a lot of internal discussion went into the selection of Hanrahan.

“I don’t think there was a bad choice,” Hurdle said. “But based on some experience that Joel has had in the past, just for the makeup of our ballclub, the continuity of the success he showed toward the end of last year, we’re going to start the season with Joel as our closer.”


Hanrahan, 29, was an on-again, off-again closer during his two-plus seasons with the Washington Nationals. He got six saves last year with the Pirates, giving him 20 in his career.

“Those last three outs are the most important outs in the game,” Hanrahan said. “You’ve got to go out there with the mindset of, ‘Let’s get it done and go home.’ I’m going to try to take the same approach I had when I pitched in the seventh and eighth innings.”

Over the winter, Hanrahan avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $1.4 million contract.