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03/30/09 2:10 PM ET

Bucs see everyday future for Bixler

Shortstop prospect to also play second base in Triple-A

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Brian Bixler's level of play and noted improvements this spring very well may have taken him out of an Opening Day roster spot with the Pirates. And that, in the long-term at least, was a good thing.

Bixler was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis prior to the Bucs' game against the Reds on Monday. But it was a move made because of the potential the team sees in Bixler more so than it was because Bixler didn't do enough to earn a spot. Arguably, he did.

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"In both instances, the players reaffirmed our belief in their ceiling as every-day, above-average Major League players," general manager Neal Huntington said of Bixler and Andrew McCutchen, who was also sent out of Major League camp on Monday. "They also showed that they are closer than we might have expected coming. In order to cement changes in, we felt like it was better for [Bixler] to go play every day than to be up here in a part-time role."

The Pirates began Spring Training unsure of whether or not Bixler could mature into a capable everyday Major League player. Those were legitimate questions considering how badly Bixler struggled during his two big league stints last year. He hit .157 in 50 games and committed eight errors.

Significant adjustments to Bixler's approach at the plate, beginning last September during instructional league, and extensive work with new infield coach Perry Hill, however, have Bixler looking much more Major League-ready. Hill called Bixler one of the most improved players in camp.

"The fans in Pittsburgh are going to see a different Brian Bixler the next time he gets back," Huntington said.

Fellow shortstop Jack Wilson, whose injuries last season opened up playing time for Bixler to get his first taste of the big leagues, agreed.

"I think after last year, it gave him something to work for this offseason," Wilson said. "He had a mission, and he came in and accomplished that mission. He played fantastic. I talked to him and told him that this is a good thing that they want him to be an everyday player. He'll be back."

Bixler will be Indianapolis' starting shortstop for the third straight season, though Huntington confirmed that Bixler will also get some playing time at second base. Infielder Shelby Ford will be the primary second baseman at Triple-A.

After the way Bixler performed this spring, he is seen as a candidate to supplant either Freddy Sanchez or Jack Wilson next season if either does not return. Neither of the two middle infielders is guaranteed to be under contract next year unless contract options are exercised.

Bixler went 20-for-58 (.345) this spring with five extra-base hits. Only McCutchen had more hits (21) than Bixler coming into Monday's game. Bixler made noticeable improvements in covering the outer half of the plate, something he struggled to do at the Major League level last year.

With Bixler out of the mix for a roster spot, the makeup of the Pirates' bench is coming into focus. The utility infield opening was seen as a battle between Bixler and Luis Cruz, though Huntington said the job has not been handed to Cruz just yet.

"We're still working through who will be the final utility player, what the configuration of the bench will be," Huntington said. "Luis probably has the inside track at this point in time, but not a done deal."

Heading into Monday, Cruz was 8-for-20 (.400) with three RBIs this spring. His ability to play anywhere in the infield and outfield definitely works to his advantage.

Andy Phillips would be the team's other option in filling that utility infielder bench spot, though Phillips is just returning from a back injury that sidelined him for three weeks. On Sunday, Huntington reaffirmed that Phillips' prolonged absence was likely to keep him from winning an Opening Day job.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.