BRADENTON, Fla. -- One month into Spring Training and 10 exhibitions into the Grapefruit League season, the Pirates' bullpen remains extremely in flux.Aside from its eventual overall composition, two major issues remain: Who will have the eighth inning, and which southpaw(s) will counter the National League's overabundance of left-handed power? The answer to both could yet be Evan Meek, who had the eighth-inning role in his All-Star season in 2010 when he was deadly against lefty hitters. But thus far, he has given few signs of being up for it. Meek is trying to come back from the injuries that decimated his 2011 season. With less zip on his fastball and less movement on his breaking pitch, he has allowed five hits and four earned runs in 1 2/3 innings. As significantly, in Saturday's "B" game against Minnesota, Meek faced four straight left-handed hitters without retiring any of them.
"[His velocity] has been OK, certainly not what it was when Evan was an All-Star," said general manager Neal Huntington. "It's been 90-93 mph. He's a power guy. The breaking ball was crisper and firmer in 2010 than we've seen this spring. But he's still building arm strength."In 2010, Meek held lefty hitters to an average of .168, and even more impressively, a puny slugging average of .200. The leading setup alternative could be Juan Cruz, signed so late he isn't even yet on the 40-man roster. As for lefty relievers for more conventional matchups, the choices are Daniel Moskos, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson. "We'd love to have two. The way the league sets up, to use one in an early key situation and have one for later," said manager Clint Hurdle. "We're open-minded. We'll take the seven best guys who we think set up our bullpen. We're not going to stick a lefty out there just to have a lefty."
Pirates face quandary on Wilson's role
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Coming out of Tuesday's off-day, their first of Spring Training, the Pirates could announce their initial round of camp cuts. Some of the early moves will be obvious and easy, others more problematic.None of the decisions ultimately facing manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington will be as difficult as the call on Justin Wilson: Not only if, but when. This is a familiar quandary. If Wilson breaks camp with the Bucs for his Major League debut, the lefty would be used in relief, the role for which he is now preparing; but if the 24-year-old is sent to Triple-A, he would most likely continue to start, as he has in 73 of his 83 Minor League games. So how quickly must the Pirates decide on him, to allow him to switch tracks and stretch out to resume starting? "He's got a great arm, but [he] still has some development left," said Huntington. "We're still focused on whether he'll start in Triple-A if he does not make the club. How do we best develop the consistency of his breaking ball? Because his success will be predicated on that. We've already seen the velocity spike out of the 'pen." A fifth-round pick in 2008 out of Cal State Fresno (Matt Garza territory), Wilson has worked 4 2/3 innings in three exhibition games, allowing four hits but six walks -- with five strikeouts. He has steadily progressed up the Minor League ladder, one season at each rung, including a 10-8 record in 2011 in Triple-A Indianapolis.
First-pitch hits key to Alvarez's success
BRADENTON, Fla. -- If there is a lightning rod on the 2012 Pirates, his name without a doubt is Pedro Alvarez. Fans pull for him to validate the promise, but the same fans are quick to pile on every bad at-bat.Manager Clint Hurdle wants Alvarez to be every bit as quick when he settles into the batter's box. Hit the pitcher before he knows what hit him. "Being ready to hit from the beginning can be very important for him, and then using the bigger part of the field," said Hurdle. Hurdle must have seen the 2011 numbers, when Alvarez, between injuries, swooned to a .191 average. They are startling: When Alvarez swung at the first pitch, he hit .417 (10-for-24); furthermore, when he put a ball in play no more than two pitches into the count, he hit .347. Meaning, when he let pitchers work him into deeper counts, Alvarez hit .119. After pitchers jumped ahead of him 0-2, Alvarez was 5-for-65 (.077) -- out of a total of 235 at-bats. "[Twenty eight] percent of his at-bats started out 0-2. That's a tough way to make a living for anybody," Hurdle said. "That's not a secret to success. He needs to be ready to hit. He's figured out things on his own. Usually it takes a subpar performance to motivate you to figure it out." In the early going of Grapefruit League play, Alvarez is 3-for-16, with two of his hits opposite-field homers.
Hague's power could land him bench role
BRADENTON, Fla. -- On the long list of baseball truisms, there should be room for this one: The tougher the decisions, the better the team. On that count, the Pirates would appear to be vastly improved at the infield corners.First and third basemen in camp virtually have to take numbers for their turns, like customers in a bakery. And right in the middle of the mix is Matt Hague, a 26-year-old strongman who has begun to hit his weight. It's not what you think: With a career Minor League average of .302, Hague has never had a problem clearing his 230 pounds. But now he's swinging with the power implied by his build. That threat makes him a bona fide candidate for the Bucs' bench. When the manager stamps you early in the camp with "The Hit Collector" label -- and you indeed start collecting hits -- that's an advantageous parlay. "I think he understands the challenges he's got at his positions," skipper Clint Hurdle said of Hague, who has played primarily first base but is getting comfortable across the diamond at third. "He went to winter ball with a purpose." Hague held his own with Tortos del Este in the Dominican Republic, batting .259 with a pair of homers and 18 RBIs in 42 games. His five hits (in 15 at-bats) in exhibition play include an impressive three-run homer off Baltimore closer Kevin Gregg. "He's collected his share of hits," general manager Neal Huntington noted of Hague. "We're getting a good feel for Matt and for what he can do. He's got a shot to come off the bench, in a pinch-hit/part-time role."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.