Pirates happy to have healthy Hinske
Back from sore rib cage, veteran expected to provide leadership
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Eric Hinske came off the field at Pirate City on Tuesday giving a thumbs up. He had played in his second Minor League game in as many days and reported no pain or discomfort afterward.
"I'm good," Hinske said. "I'll be in there tomorrow."
Hinske has been held out of action since Feb. 26 because of a left rib cage contusion that he sustained when running into the outfield wall. The injury was not initially expected to hold the 31-year-old outfielder out this long, but the Pirates erred on the cautious side because they had the extra week to work with this year in Spring Training.
Now healthy, Hinske will make the start as the Pirates' designated hitter on Wednesday against the Twins.
With a healthy Hinske, the Pirates now have all but one of their injured outfielders back on the field. At one time earlier in the month, all four were nursing injuries simultaneously. Brandon Moss remains out, though he is supposed to play in a Minor League game on Thursday as long as he doesn't experience any discomfort in his right thumb while taking batting practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.
But having Hinske back on the field can provide more to the club than just offensive production. Much has been made about how far Hinske's leadership went on a fairly inexperienced Rays team last year. Hinske should find himself in a similar situation in Pittsburgh, being one of the "older" players on the club.
Still, he insists he will ease into the role.
"You don't just jump into it," Hinske said of being a team leader. "You first have to be yourself and see how it goes. I'm just here to help any which way I can. It might be that somebody gets injured and I have to go in there every day, or it might be that I come off the bench. I'll be ready for whatever they tell me to be ready for."
There's no stauncher advocate for Hinske's influence than young Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. When Longoria made his debut for Tampa Bay last year, Hinske quickly took him under his wing. Hinske guided Longoria through daily routines, showing him what to do to prepare to be an everyday player.
And, as Longoria tells it, the programs that Hinske got him to buy into were crucial in making the transition to the big leagues less overwhelming.
"He was just really a guiding light for me," Longoria said. "He got me on a program. Now I've been trying to do the same thing for [younger players] that Hinske did for me last year."
The Pirates have made it clear that the leadership role on this club doesn't lie on Hinske's shoulders. There is no one player who holds that burden, for that matter.
However, management doesn't ignore the fact that Hinske joins the Bucs after having spent the past two seasons on teams that played in the World Series. Knowing what the clubhouse culture needs to be like to win and being able to set that example with the Pirates could be invaluable.
"Not only do players get to see how he does things, but the interjection that he is going to have with our players is good," manager John Russell said. "He likes talking the game. When you've been around a while and have experienced a lot, good things come out of your mouth.
"They can't solely rely on Eric Hinske to lead them. They are going to have to take a lot of responsibility themselves. But you always like to have that good mix of veteran leadership."
From Hinske, that veteran leadership will come not only by example, but from a willingness to be vocal when necessary.
"I like to say things during the game," Hinske said. "Like if I see something that wasn't supposed to be done, someone not being smart in stealing a base or not understanding a situation, I'll step up and say things at that time. I am not going to show anybody up or do anything like that. But if you see something going on that wasn't right, you say something."
With Hinske now able to return to the field with 2 1/2 weeks of Spring Training games remaining, there is no concern about a lack of time for him prepare for the season. And while he certainly sees himself as a potentially impacting clubhouse presence, that's not the only reason that Hinske could be a critical part of this 2009 club.
He's likely to start the season primarily in a bench role, but will be called on somewhat frequently to spell his teammates. The fact that he can play either corner outfield or corner infield position makes him versatile enough for Russell to use him more often than maybe a normal bench player.
Hinske also will be a power threat off the bench, something Pittsburgh lacked last season. In 133 games for Tampa Bay in 2008, Hinske hit 20 homers and drove in 60 runs.
Hinske would also be a candidate to move into a starting role should either unproven outfielder -- Moss or Nyjer Morgan -- show an inability to hold the position down on an everyday basis.
"He gives us that kind of depth," Russell said. "He's used to playing a bench role, but he's also used to playing quite a few games in a row. That adds to being able to give our guys a little more rest and keep them fresh. If we do have a need where we need him to play, we feel very comfortable putting him out there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.