Pirates first baseman Clement is angling for another shot at the majors
BRADENTON, Fla. — Jeff Clement is happy to be free from the burden of grand expectations.
The hype that surrounded him as the third overall pick in the 2005 draft has faded. Once considered the Pirates' first baseman of the future, Clement is in spring training this year as a nonroster invitee.
Before anyone wonders whether Clement can still slug 500-foot homers, he must prove he can still play on a surgically repaired knee.
"I don't know what expectations, if any, there are for me, coming into camp," Clement said. "There's no real pressure. It's just go play, get it done. I'm excited about that opportunity.
"Actually, I think it's freeing, knowing I'm going to give it everything I've got and if I stay healthy I'm going to do the things I'm capable of. If not ... well, that's it. I really feel good, so I have a lot of confidence something good is going to happen."
Clement, 28, had microfracture surgery on a nonweight-bearing part of his left knee in September 2010 and rehabbed for nearly a year in Florida. The other day, Clement jokingly told Tom Prince, manager of the Gulf Coast League Pirates, that he considers Pirate City his home field.
"The rehab was miserable," Clement said. "Going into the surgery, I had no idea it was going to take that long."
Clement played in 22 games, mostly as a designated hitter, late last season for Triple-A Indianapolis. He batted .271 with one homer.
Over the winter, Clement continued to work out at his home in Iowa. He re-signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent and reported to camp early, eager to demonstrate his progress.
Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee likely will platoon at first base. That would seem to rule out any chance Clement has of making the team out of spring training.
"We're looking at Jeff realistically to see where he can take this, if he can get back on his feet," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He adds value as far as depth and experience."
When the Pirates got Clement from Seattle in a deadline-day trade in 2009, they hoped they'd snatched a left-handed slugger. He was the Pirates' Opening Day first baseman in 2010, but he was demoted to Indy after hitting .201 with seven homers in 54 games.
"We were expecting his bat to carry him and were hoping for survival on defense," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "Instead, we got a guy who took to the position fine, but who really struggled with the bat. He went down to Triple-A and was turning a corner when injuries hit."
Clement was hitting .304 with eight homers at Indianapolis when he went on the disabled list with a sore knee. Four weeks later, he had surgery.
Clement realizes his doesn't have much chance to stick with the Pirates in April, and that he'll have to battle Matt Hague for playing time at Indy this year. But Clement hopes having a solid spring will pay off, either with the Pirates or another club.
"I had a nice, long offseason and really worked hard to get my knee stronger," Clement said. "I'm at a better place, mentally, than I've ever been. I'm just really excited to play baseball again and whatever happens, happens. I've done the preparation. Now, it's time to go play."