BRADENTON — Competition can be a good thing. It can fuel guys forward. Over the offseason, the Pirates acquired infielder Casey McGehee from the Milwaukee Brewers for reliever Jose Veras. The Pirates entered Spring Training with a draw up of Garrett Jones and McGehee platooning at first base.
Jones, 30, finished the 2011 season with a .243 average, 16 home runs and 68 RBI. McGehee, 29, finished 2011 with the Brewers hitting .223 with 13 home runs and 67 RBI.
“I think that’s the way we’ve drawn it up in the offseason, to know we’re protected from both sides against right and left-handed pitching,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “They’ve both shown the ability to handle, Jones right-handed [pitching], McGehee left-handed [pitching].”
“McGehee’s actually showed a volume of things from right-handed pitching as well. You look at the seasons he had in ’09 and ’10 that you saw, especially from a production, a value, a look. It gives us more weapons. When one of them is playing, we should have an advantage. Then we also have an advantage off the bench now for any matchups that come out of the bullpen. It just makes us stronger to have both of those guys there.”
McGehee, who has played primarily at third base, will look to play both infield corners for the Pirates this season. Both Matt Hague and Nick Evans can also play first and third base, and are being considered as well to make the club out of spring training.
Hague, 26, was drafted by the Pirates in the 9th round of the 2008 draft. He finished the 2011 season with a .309 average, 70 runs, 37 doubles, 12 home runs, 75 RBI and a .372 on-base percentage in his first season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Hague led the Pirates system in games played (141) and ranked third in RBI while leading the International League with 165 hits, finished third in doubles, third in total bases (244) and sixth in batting average.
“Matt is a guy that’s knocked down everything that’s been put in front of him through his minor league career,” Hurdle said. “One of the terms that put a smile on my face when evaluating personal, one of the terms kept coming up is he’s a hit collector. He’s been a hit collector throughout his minor league career. This guy goes up to the plate and gets hits. He went down to winter ball with a purpose. I think he understands the challenges he has at his position. He can provide an opportunity off the bench, whether it’s pinch-hitting, spot starting, the versatility, the defense, being able to play both corners also adds to that. We’re definitely going to take a look at him.”
Evans, 26, was signed this offseason by the Pirates to a minor league deal. Over 59 games with the New York Mets during the 2011 season, Evans hit .256 with four home runs and 25 RBI.
“Nick Evans is a guy that’s also done some things that stick out and grab your attention,” Hurdle said. “He’s got that challenge in front of him. We’re trying to find him a consistent approach when he’s not in there everyday. When he goes down to the minor leagues and gets a chance to play everyday, he does pretty well. Then the opportunity haven’t present itself where he’s jumped into a situation where he’s got that opportunity to play everyday in the major leagues. But offensively, we like what we see. We like the quality at-bats he’s been able to put up at even at the Major League level, as well as the Minor League level. So it creates more depth, more value in our organization. The better ballplayers you get, the better team you’re going to have.”
Over the offseason, Hague played a lot of third base during winter ball in the Dominican. Both he and Evans have been working on drills and taking grounders at both the corner infield spots this sprin, and can provide versatility to the club.
“We’ve got a lot of versatility with a lot of guys that we’re going to have to use every inning that is available to us to move some people around, to give us good looks so we can make good evaluations on what their strengths might be as we prioritize. Where they might be better at first, can they go to third, can you do a Major League job, a serviceable job as well. We’re looking forward more to that opportunity, seeing them in a game-type situation as spring training continues to unfold,” Hurdle said.
Also at big league camp this spring is first baseman Jeff Clement. Pittsburgh acquired the former first-round pick back in 2009. Clement missed most of last season recovering from knee surgery, and will look to bounce back healthy this year. Although it’s a long shot he would make the club out of spring, he provides depth in a position that struggled to provide offense in 2011.
“We are looking at Jeff. Realistically, about his health, where he can take this, getting back on his feet,” Hurdle said. “He’s had some tremendous challenges in the past. He’s a guy that’s had some success also, well thought of. It’s a good skill set, whether it fits as a left-handed bat off the bench. Obviously there’s a depth chart in place. He’s got to work through that. I’m just happy for him that he’s worked hard, the perseverance has paid off. We’ll see where the spring takes him. But he adds value as far as depth and experience as well. I’m looking forward and he’s looking forward to getting out and playing healthy again.”
Hurdle said that the 72 games that the Pirates won last year was not enough. Acquiring players and providing depth at first base was an offseason priority for the club.
“You’ve got to bring players in you think that are going to push players, that are going to compete, and then you’ve got to have depth when somebody goes down for any reason,” Hurdle said. “We experienced that as well as anybody last year. We were able to answer the first lash of injuries with the wave of players that came up. We actually took on a second wave that did pretty well. But then those waves start getting hurt. Then there was definitely a drop off.”
This year, the Pirates are making sure they have a good contingency plan in place in case offense at either corner struggles.