BRADENTON, Fla. — Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are competing for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting right field job this spring. However, they are likely just keeping the seat warm for top prospect Gregory Polanco.
Polanco has been the talk of the Pirates’ camp this spring. The 22-year-old started off 6-for-22 (.273) in Grapefruit League play with two doubles and one home run, but he routinely put on shows during workouts with his power and strong arm.
“He’s a true five-tool talent,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We’re excited about his future.”
The key word is future.
Polanco will begin the season at Triple-A Indianapolis regardless of what happens this spring. Part of it has to do with the fact that he has played just two games at that level, and part of it has to do with the fact the Pirates don’t want to start his arbitration and free agency clocks.
Barring something unforeseen, look for Polanco to be in the Pirates’ lineup by no later than the All-Star break, though.
In the meantime, Tabata and Snider are vying to be the everyday right fielder. They spent most of last season platooning while the Pirates enjoyed both their first winning season and their first postseason appearance since 1992.
The left-handed-hitting Snider faced right-handed pitchers, and the right-handed-hitting Tabata started against left-handers. Both took a seat on the bench, though, after veteran Marlon Byrd was acquired Aug. 27 from the New York Mets in a trade.
Snider is making the better showing this spring, going 6-for-21 (.286) with two doubles and one homer through March 13. Tabata is just 3-for-22 (.136) with no extra-base hits.
Snider underwent surgery on his left foot days after the Pirates lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series last October. He had bone spurs and the sesamoid bone removed.
Snider suffered the injury early last season, and the Pirates believe that is why he hit just .215 with five home runs in 111 games after posting a .300 batting average in 23 games in April. In essence, Snider spent most of the season trying to hit on one leg.
Even so, Snider refuses to say the injury dragged down his statistics.
“That would be an excuse,” he said at the Pirates’ spring training camp. “The challenge is to learn swing mechanics that will take stress off my back foot and still allow me to be an effective hitter. That’s on me to figure it out with the help from (hitting coach) Jeff Branson and (assistant hitting coach) Jeff Livesey.
“I got hurt, but a lot of guys get hurt and still produce. I didn’t make the adjustments I needed to make.”
–OF/1B Andrew Lambo got off to poor start in his effort to show he should be a platoon mate with right-handed-hitting 1B Gaby Sanchez. Lambo, a left-handed-hitting rookie, went 2-for-23 (.087) in Grapefruit League play through March 13. However, the Pirates remain intrigued by Lambo after the 25-year-old hit a combined 32 home runs with Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona last season. “As an organization, we need to look at Andrew’s power,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You can spend $10 million, $15 million on a free agent with power, but you’re obviously better served to find your own internally.”
–RHP Bryan Morris is working on a new pitch this spring as he tries to include a two-pitch sinking fastball into his arsenal. He is achieving mixed results, allowing three runs and three hits in first 4 1/3 innings, though he worked two perfect innings March 13 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Morris, 26, spent his first full season in the major leagues last year and had a 3.46 ERA in 55 relief appearances. He is out of minor league options and could be used as trade bait in the next few weeks as the Pirates try to acquire a left-handed-hitting first baseman before Opening Day.
–RHP Jared Hughes believes the bite is back on his sinker this spring after he struggled last season in the major leagues, posting a 4.78 ERA in 29 games. Hughes led National League rookies with 66 relief appearances in 2012 and had a 2.85 ERA, which was aided by having an outstanding 61 percent ground-ball rate.
–LF Starling Marte is having a so-so spring, going 7-for-26 (.269) with one extra-base hit, a double, through March 13. While spring training stats don’t usually mean anything, Marte’s lack of power is somewhat concerning. Last year, he had just four extra-base hits in his last 56 plate appearances, including the postseason, after being out from Aug. 19-Sept. 8 because of a bruised right index finger.
–3B Pedro Alvarez struck out four times in his first 28 plate appearances of the Grapefruit League season. That is an encouraging sign after he led the National League with 186 strikeouts last season in 614 trips to the plate. Alvarez also hit 36 home runs in 2013, tying Arizona Diamondbacks 1B Paul Goldschmidt for the league lead.
–RHP Gerrit Cole’s fastball consistently hitting 95-97 mph on the radar gun during his spring starts, which is in line with how hard Cole threw last season as a rookie. His fastball averaged 95.5 mph in 2013, according to FanGraphs. Cole has five strikeouts in five innings so far in exhibition play.
–1B Travis Ishikawa made his Grapefruit League debut March 10 after straining his right calf Feb. 25 in an intrasquad game. In camp as a non-roster player, Ishikawa has an outside chance to become the left-handed-hitting half of a platoon at first base with 1B Gaby Sanchez, though fellow lefties Andrew Lambo and Chris McGuiness are also vying for at-bats.
–RHP Jameson Taillon, considered the Pirates’ top pitching prospect, was among the first wave of cuts on March 10. He was reassigned to the minor league camp. He pitched twice in Grapefruit League play and allowed three runs — one earned — and four hits in 2 2/3 innings with one walk and no strikeouts. Taillon was bothered by a blister on his pitching hand in his second outing. He is likely begin the season at Triple-A Indianapolis after going a combined 5-10 with a 3.73 ERA in 26 games between Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona last season.
–LHP Jeff Locke (tightness in right side) was scratched from his scheduled start against Toronto on March 5, then suffered a setback during a throwing session March 10. There is no timetable for when he will return to game action. He likely will begin the season on the disabled list.
–RHP Kyle McPherson (Tommy John surgery in July 2013) is throwing off a mound in his recovery and expected to be able to pitch in minor league rehab games by June.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I’m open to anything,” — C Russell Martin, who can become a free agent at the end of the season, on the possibility of having talks with the Pirates about a contract extension.