Pirates Notebook: Meek Continues to Move Forward This Spring

BRADENTON, Fla. — After making a rough Grapefruit League debut with the Pirates, right-hander Evan Meek has bounced back this spring by tossing three scoreless frames over his last three appearances. He’s allowed one hit with two strikeouts.

Meek worked hard over the offseason to get his body in better shape, dropping nearly 20 pounds by cycling, and building up arm strength, in order to bounce back from an injury plagued 2011 season.

The 28-year-old was placed on the disabled list twice last season with right-shoulder tendonitis. The first in late April, which sidelined him for nearly a month. He returned to the disabled list a few weeks later, where he remained until September. But that was last year, and Meek has been working hard to return his former All-Star self.

There’s been a lot of talk about Meek’s velocity this spring. During Meek’s break out 2010 season, he posted a 2.14 ERA over 70 appearances (80.0 innings), the righty hit 95-97 regularly on the radar gun. So far this spring, Meek’s fastball has been anywhere from 90-92 on the stadium radar guns. Despite the lower velocity, the Pirates don’t see any reason why he won’t regain his speed back.

“I think he’s really in a good place,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “We encourage him just to let it go, not to grunt, and snort, and slobber to get it going. Just to get out there and give himself a good effort. I think with what he went with last year, I think he’s understanding of that.”

“He needs to challenge himself to find out what velocity is going to go. We’re not looking for 97 tomorrow. I think it’s been firming up. The cut’s still there. [Michael] McKenry said it [had] pretty good movement [Sunday].”

The question is, does Meek have enough time to earn a spot in the bullpen? The already crowded ‘pen — which features pitchers such as closer Joel Hanrahan, veteran Jason Grilli, and Chris Resop, to name a few — has a lot of competition this spring. Non-roster invites such as Juan Cruz, Jo-Jo Reyes, and young arms in Jared Hughes, Daniel Moskos, are all battling for the few open spots to break camp this spring.

“Evan is continuing to get comfortable, and continuing to build arm strength, which is a big thing for him,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We’ve got tremendous competition in our bullpen. We’ve got a large number of guys for a small number of spots. Evan is right in the middle of that.”

With shoulder injuries, gaining their arm strength and velocity back can be a progress and take time. Hurdle said there is no set timetable for when they expect his velocity to improve.

“He’s moving forward. We’re not trying to look for any huge jumps, as long as there is progress getting made,” Hurdle said. “He feels good. McKenry liked the movement on the ball to left-handed hitters…We’ll just keep getting him out there and keep helping him build up arm strength.”

“I don’t have a timetable. They’re human beings. He’s making progress, and that’s what we’re encouraged about. What he’s encouraged about. He feels healthy. And it’s gotten a little bit better every time out.”

Morton Letting Go

Over the off-season, right-hander Charlie Morton underwent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip in October. The injury bothered Morton off and on during the 2011 season.

Although the hip feels fine now, Morton said he is learning to let go of the idea that he had surgery when he’s on the mound.

“I’m learning to kind of let go of the idea that I had surgery, and that I’m coming back off surgery, and protecting it subconsciously,” Morton said. “I’m not out there worried about my hip, honestly. I think just letting go, letting the ball fly the way I can throw it. Just getting out there and competing.”

Morton said letting go is an everyday thing for him.

“A day like today, I start to feel me not thinking about it,” Morton said after his outing on Sunday. “Not thinking about mechanics and making sure everything is in the right spot.”

“I think it’s very important,” Hurdle said of Morton letting go of hip surgery. “I think that now that he’s out there and understands [that] he’s been out five innings. He doesn’t feel anything. He’s capable of doing it. There might be that little guy we’ve just got to kick to the curb, and he’s just got to do it. He’s got to kick that guy to the curb. Let him know he’s healthy. He can make pitches, field his position, run around. I think that’s coming.”

Adjusting to Triple-A Pitching

For a young prospect like outfielder Starling Marte, a big adjustment he will face in the 2012 is the pitchers at the Triple-A level. Marte, who had a huge 2011 season at Double-A Altoona, finishing with a .332 average and an Eastern League leading 178 hits, will have a different challenge on the mound.

“You start getting to the point where the early levels, it’s basically about getting the ball in the zone, a fastball in the zone,” Hurdle said. “Not many of them can spin balls behind in counts. Once you get to Triple-A, they’re starting to spin balls behind in lots of counts. You’ve got a lot of insurance guys that have some Major League experience that are hanging on, waiting for a call or an injury to get back up…They’re going to back door pitches. They’re going to throw soft in offensive counts. They’re going to challenge your discipline as much as anything.”