BRADENTON, Fla. – After placing right-hander Charlie Morton on the disabled list to start the 2012 season, Huntington said the decision to carry an extra bench player, rather than an arm, is still in discussion. Instead of carrying 12 pitchers, the Pirates could decide to use 11 arms (four starters and seven relievers) and 14 position players to help the club during their tough month of April.
“That is an option,” Huntington said. “That is something we are talking about. The best use of the bench for Clint to win those early games. Eight bullpen guys allows us the protection early as your starters are getting built up, getting into the cold weather. It is an option that we could go 11 pitchers,  position players. Or we could go four starters and eight relievers and go 12 and 13. We’re still working through that. Probably our final decisions will be made in Philadelphia in terms of the final spots as we go forward.”
“We’ve talked about both scenarios,” Hurdle said. “We’ve talked about the difference in personnel. We need to factor in the off days involved and how much the extra pitching you think you’d need or could use, or if the bat would play better. That’s where we are in the discussions right now. Would the extra arm be the benefit, or would the bat be a benefit? It could open up a position for all three of the utility men to make the club, or it could open up an opportunity for another long man to make the club.”
The three utility men battling to break camp with the club include Matt Hague, Josh Harrison and Yamaico Navarro. All three have had hot springs, and could possibly make the 25-man roster if they club decides to carry the extra bat. Hague entered Thursday’s game action with a team-leading four home runs and a .311 avg thing spring. Harrison leads the club with doubles (seven) while posting a .424 average. Navarro, who has been sidelined the past two days with a left forearm contusion and will be back in play tomorrow, has a .340 average.
“You love to have the competition,” Hurdle said. “We got three guys who played very well this spring. And give us good at-bats. And actually work extremely hard throughout the spring, not having many days off for any one of those three guys. They took a lot of time on the field, a lot of time in the back fields. There’s times where that can help you out and bring you a reward at the end of spring training. We still have a few days to go, but we’re real pleased with our effort. We’re real pleased with how productive they’ve been.”
Meek Already Better Than Last Season
After getting off to a rough start during Grapefruit League action this spring, Evan Meek has been solid on the mound. Over his last six outings (8.0 innings), Meek has allowed one earned run on three hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
“We are pleased with the development,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re pleased with the progress. And plus, he’s carried one of the heavier work loads of anybody out of the bullpen this spring…It’s another step forward. The velocity and the movement were there [Wednesday]. [He] got himself in a bit of a jam and was able to get out of it against a very good hitter. I continue to be encouraged of the progress that he’s been making.”
In two of those six outings, Meek has tossed multiple frames in order to build up his arm strength this spring. The idea was intentional and a plan that was put into place by pitching coach Ray Searage.
“It’s absolutely intentional,” Hurdle said. “He needed to pitch. From where he was last year, he felt healthy enough to do it. It was another way to develop arm speed, velocity. His velocity has improved. He can carry a little bit of a workload, stretch out a little bit. It’s been a plan that Ray’s had in place. Evan has been more than willing to work with it, and to do whatever he can to get himself back to the version that he was in 2010. It’s way better than anything we’ve saw last year already.”
Meek worked hard over the offseason to get his body in better shape, dropping nearly 20 pounds by cycling, and building up arm strength, in order to bounce back from an injury plagued 2011 season.
During Meek’s break out 2010 season, where he posted a 2.14 ERA over 70 appearances (80.0 innings), the righty hit 95-97 regularly on the radar gun. Throughout spring, Meek has been sitting at 90-93, touching 94 on occasion.
“There’s times where it’s way better than it was last year,” Hurdle said. “The biggest thing isn’t so much the velocity, but the finish on his pitches. You saw him throw some breaking balls [Wednesday], some guys took funny swings. Real funny swings…I also think we’re also starting to see a guy whose mound presence has improved. There’s a lot more confidence out there now.”
Alvarez Eliminates Toe Tap
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has had a rough time at the plate this spring hitting just .167 over 16 games during Grapefruit League action. The club plans to break camp having Alvarez starting at the hot corner. In order to help Alvarez feel more comfortable at the plate, Hurdle said they have eliminated the toe tap he started incorporating over the offseason, and is looking to make things more simple at the plate.
“I think we’ve talked about it after his last game here,” Hurdle said after Thursday’s game. “I’m of the mindset, and I think he is, we got to find a way to simplify some things. Just pick it up, put it down, see the ball out of the pitchers hand. He had 11 at-bats yesterday. He went over to the minor league side. He had five more today. He’s going to spend a minor league day with them again tomorrow to get a bunch of at-bats, come back, then play the next day here. We’ll just keep looking for progress.”
Alvarez went 2-for-5 at the plate today without the toe tap.
Burnett Will Not Go on 60-Day D.L.
Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said prior to the Pirates loss to the Minnesota Twins at McKechnie Field on Thursday, that right-hander A.J. is not a candidate for the 60-day disabled list.
The righty is tentatively scheduled to throw three innings in a minor league game at Pirate City on Sunday. Burnett is recovering from right eye surgery he underwent last month.
Cruzin’ in the ‘Pen
Although the Pirates pen isn’t completely finished being put together, one arm that will be in the bullpen to start the season — other than locks in Jason Grilli, Joel Hanrahan and Chris Resop — is right-hander Juan Cruz. The 33-year-old will make team as non-roster player.
Because of his veteran experience in the Majors, Cruz had a clause in his contract where he had to be added to the 25-man roster by March 29th. Huntington said they will make corresponding move to open spot on 40-man tomorrow.