01/13/10 1:55 PM EST
Bucs, Church finalize one-year deal
Versatile veteran provides club with depth in outfield
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
Church gives the Pirates an experienced fourth outfielder and would appear to be an upgrade over the club's previous options of Brandon Moss, John Raynor or Delwyn Young for that role. Those three players, however, remain in competition for another bench role.
"He provides us with a quality depth option with the upside to be an everyday guy whether it's out of necessity if one of the guys we pencil in right now shows they're not ready or injury," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's had some health issues over the last couple years, but when he's been healthy, he's produced well."
As it turned out, Huntington's connection with Church from their days in Cleveland played a significant role in enticing the 31-year-old outfielder to sign with Pittsburgh. Huntington was the Indians' director of player development when the organization drafted Church in the 14th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft.
The possibility of a reunion with Huntington and the potential for playing time was enough to convince Church that the Pirates were the best fit for him.
"I like the young talent they have, and I think they're moving in the right direction," Church said over the phone on Wednesday. "There is an opportunity to get a lot of at-bats and reestablish myself. And really, when it came down to it, I wanted to be reacquainted with Neal Huntington."
In December, Church was not tendered a contract by the Braves, who had acquired the outfielder from the Mets in a midseason trade. The Pirates contacted him almost immediately and made an early offer soon after, even as most media reports continued to focus on the organization's pursuit of free-agent outfielder Rick Ankiel.
|"In Pittsburgh I have a great chance, great opportunity and hopefully I'll be able to run with it."|
|-- Ryan Church|
The pursuit of Ankiel was hindered because of his desire to be a regular outfielder, something the Pirates couldn't guarantee.
"At this point, he's still looking for everyday opportunities, and that's not something we were able to offer," Huntington said.
Church has been told that he'll come to Spring Training as the team's fourth outfielder, behind Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Lastings Milledge. If Jeff Clement slips in his attempt to secure the job as the team's starting first baseman, the Pirates could slide Jones back to first, leaving Church to play every day in right.
And if Church remains the fourth outfielder, his ability to play all three outfield positions gives the Pirates insurance in case of an injury.
"Coming in, I have a chance to get a lot of at-bats," Church said. "If somebody fails, then they're going to move people around and I can step in. If things work out to where they don't need me as an everyday guy, I'll be around to help out every way I can and to work with the young outfielders.
"I've had some unfortunate things happen. I have an opportunity now to basically reestablish myself. I've dealt with butting heads with another manager with the Mets and never got to the bottom of that. In Pittsburgh I have a great chance, great opportunity and hopefully I'll be able to run with it."
There were grumblings about a rift between Church and Mets manager Jerry Manuel early last season. Neither acknowledged an issue with the other while Church played in New York, but there was an exchange of words later in the year after Church had been traded to Atlanta.
Church's frustrations during the past two years, though, have dealt primarily with injuries that have kept him off the field. He was limited to 90 games in 2008 while dealing with the effects of two concussions. Last year, Church was plagued with back discomfort and a right hamstring strain. He appeared in 111 games.
Worries about any of those symptoms resurfacing were put to rest after Church's physical on Tuesday.
"Our trainers and medical staff did a pretty extensive review of his records and are confident that he is ready to have a healthy, productive season," Huntington said.
"Just having all that come back that way is encouraging, because that confirms how I felt," Church added. "I'm good to go."
He finished 2009 with a .273 batting average, 28 doubles, four homers and 40 RBIs. Church is a career .272 hitter in 548 games over six seasons with three different National League East clubs. The opportunity to get away from some of the NL East's cavernous parks and into PNC Park, with its short right-field wall, was also exciting for Church.
"I've always loved the city," Church said. "I can't wait to be able to call that home."
With the addition of Church, the Pirates' 40-man roster is full. It also ends the Pirates' pursuit of free-agent position players this offseason, as an outfielder was the final item on their wish list.
"We'll continue to look to see if there is some depth to protect against injury or underperformance," Huntington said. "But yes, we are excited about the group of players we have and a lot of the young talent that's there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.