PITTSBURGH — In less than two weeks, first base prospect Matt Hague will be heading down to Bradenton, Fla., for spring training. This year, however, is different for Hague. The 26-year-old, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason after being Rule 5 eligible, will have a chance to make an impression at his first big league camp.
With the first base position undetermined to start the 2012 season, Hague could have an opportunity to prove he’s worthy of the job. Candidates for first include Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee, both whom are nearing their arbitration cases, and non-roster invites Nick Evans and Jake Fox.
Hague said his mindset heading into camp is to make a good impression and earn a roster spot in April.
Hague finished the 2011 season with a .309 average, 70 runs, 37 doubles, 12 home runs, 75 RBI and a .372 on-base percentage in his first season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Hague led the Pirates system in games played (141) and ranked third in RBI.
“Playing in a 162-game season, and hopefully more than that, is my goal and the Pirates goal,” he said. “The more at-bats and experience I can get the better it will make me in the long run.”
But the achievements didn’t stop there. Hague led the International League with 165 hits, finished third in doubles, third in total bases (244) and sixth in batting average. Hague’s 165 hits were the most by a member of the Indy Indians since D.T. Cromer recorded 166 in 1999. Hague also became the first Indianapolis batter to lead the league in hits since Junior Noboa in 1989.
“I think I took strides forward in my career last year, however, you can always take further strides,” Hague said. “My home runs weren’t where I wanted them, but then again, my doubles this year were at a high, [and] Indianapolis isn’t a right-handed hitter friendly park.”
Hague has been working on his versatility this offseason as well. During the 2011 season, Hague played in just 17 games at third base, but has been seeing a lot of playing time at third during winter ball and during workouts at the voluntary mini camp in January.
“It helps me to just give myself different options and the opportunity of being versatile,” Hague said. “I don’t really know the role I will be playing, but I can only just keep trying to get better at both first and third and see what happens.”
It was expected by many that Hague’s 2011 season would earn him a September call up. That call didn’t happen.
“Matt Hague has definitely done enough to warrant a consideration. Absolutely,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said a few weeks prior to the September call ups. “He’s had solid offensive camp gains at every level he’s been in.”
But first baseman Derrek Lee came back healthy and Hurdle said at the time there wouldn’t be many opportunities for at-bats for Hague with Lee back. There would have also been a 40-man roster move needed to bring up Hague.
Hague did, however, get to come to Pittsburgh to observe with the club. Hague, along with four other prospects, got the opportunity to work out with the team and be a part of everything they do, other than getting dressed and playing in the games. Hurdle said he really wanted to give them, not only a reward for their 2011 seasons, but a learning experience that they could take in the offseason as well.
“The experience was amazing,” Hague said. “PNC Park is an amazing place. I knew, or came up in the system with a lot of the guys so it was nice seeing a lot of them.”
Drafted in the 9th round of the 2008 draft out of Oklahoma State, all Hague has done in the Pirates organization is hit, hit, hit –a .322 average in 2008, .293 in 2009, .295 in 2010 and .309 in 2011– proving that he is worthy of another promotion. Hague has continued to improve at every level he’s been, posting a .829 OPS in 2011 and good strikeout to walk ratios along the way.
Those numbers warranted Hague a spot this off-season on the 40-man roster. Hague was first time Rule 5 eligible and found out he was protected from the draft while playing winter ball in the Dominican.
“I was hoping the Pirates were going to put me on the roster,“ Hague said. “It was before a game and [Triple-A Manager and Manager for the Toros del Este in the Dominican] Dean Treanor got a call from [Director of Player Development] Kyle Stark and [Treanor] told me that I was added to the 40-man roster. I was really excited that it happened and happy that the Pirates gave me the 40-man roster spot.”
Hague spent two months playing winter ball this offseason, where he hit for a .259 avg with 15 runs, four doubles, two homers, 18 RBI and 21 walks over 49 games.
“It was amazing. It was a little uncomfortable when I first got down there, just because of the culture shock,“ he said. “But I got used to it and had a great time. Dominican people take baseball very seriously and the fans are the loudest and craziest I have experienced. The people and the players I met down there were awesome and they took me in and showed me around without hesitating. That helped me out a lot.”
This offseason Hague said he has been working on a lot of agility and cardio to get more lean. The 6’ 3″ right-handed hitter was listed at 225 pounds prior to the 2012 season.
“My offseason workouts and lifting have been cut short from playing winter ball, but I feel great,” Hague said. “I have been doing a lot of agility and cardio mixed in with lifting weights to get more lean. I’m not really working on anything different this year, just have been taking a lot more ground balls at third base then in the previous offseasons.”
Hague will arrive to spring training early, where he will be working hard to make a good impression on Hurdle in hopes of heading to Pittsburgh, instead of Indianapolis after camp ends. But despite if he makes the club out of spring training, or gets the call later in the 2012 season, Hague will be looking to hit, hit, hit in Pittsburgh.
“I still think my best is yet to come and I’m excited for this upcoming season.”