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Pirates

Pirates have competition at the corner

| Thursday, March 17, 2011

BRADENTON, Fla. — Four players are in the running for one, possibly two, open spots on the Pirates' bench.

Not long ago, each of the four — Andy Marte, Garrett Atkins, Josh Fields and Steve Pearce — seemed destined for long-term success as everyday players. Now they are scrambling for a chance to be a backup corner infielder.

"They've each got some track record to fall back on," general manager Neal Huntington said. "It's going to be a good competition. We'll have some choices to make."

Garrett Jones, who will platoon in right field with Matt Diaz, has locked up one of the five bench spots. And although Huntington has not yet said it, Pedro Ciriaco seems as though he will be the backup middle infielder.

Infielder Josh Rodriguez, who was picked up in the Rule 5 draft, doesn't seem likely to make the team. If he does not stay on the 25-man roster all season, the Pirates must offer him back to Cleveland. However, the Pirates will try to work a trade with the Indians to keep Rodriguez. If a deal is struck, Rodriguez could play this season in the minors and remain Pirates property.

If the Pirates keep Rodriguez and send him to Triple-A Indianapolis, that would affect the playing time of prospects Brian Friday (second base) and Chase d'Arnaud (shortstop).

If Ryan Doumit is not traded, he will stick with the club. But unless the Pirates keep a third catcher, the likelihood of Doumit pinch-hitting would be diminished. So adding another catcher, such as Jason Jaramillo, would leave just one opening for a corner infielder.

"It's still up for grabs," Huntington said. "Steve Pearce has made some nice plays defensively. Garrett's gotten his hits. Josh is showing some improvement with the bat. Andy has gotten his hits and has played solid defense. Each guy has done some pretty positive things."

Of the four, only Pearce is on the 40-man roster. The other three signed this past offseason as minor league free agents and would require a corresponding move to get on the active roster.

Pearce, who turns 27 in three weeks, has never matched his success from 2007, when he zoomed from Class A to the majors. During the past three years, Pearce has played just 112 games with the Pirates and hit eight homers in 103 at-bats.

"He's coming here to prove something," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He expects more out of himself. His health is going to be critical, and he's feeling really good right now."

After missing most of last season with ankle and knee injuries, Pearce was granted a special fourth option. So the Pirates could send Pearce to the minors at the end of spring training without having to put him through waivers.

A natural first baseman, Pearce began playing the outfield last year. He added to his versatility this spring by playing third base.

"It's been an easy transition because I played it in college," Pearce said. "I'm comfortable over there. I just have to get my reps so it becomes a little bit easier getting reads on hops and stuff like that and get back in form."

Marte, 27, has been rated an organization's top prospect three times — in 2004 and '05 with Atlanta and in 2006 with Boston. Yet over six years in the majors, he's played in only 301 games and hit .218 with 20 homers.

"Andy's certainly ahead of the other three defensively," Huntington said. "Andy's done a nice job with the bat. He's hit the pitches he's supposed to hit and made the catches he's supposed to make."

Fields, 28, missed almost all of last season while recovering from hip surgery. In 2004, the Chicago White Sox made him the 18th overall pick in the draft.

Fields flashed power in the minors, but it's never translated in the big leagues. Of his 34 career homers, 23 came in 2007 when he played in a career-high 100 games with the White Sox.

Atkins, 31, is a six-year veteran who has been a solid run producer. He hit .329 with 120 RBI for Colorado in 2006, but his numbers have dropped off dramatically since.

"I'm a line-drive hitter, doubles, some home runs now and then," Atkins said. "I like to drive in runs and score runs. That's what the game's about. It's not as much about hitting home runs as people may think."

Additional Information:

Corner competition

Here are four players vying for the job of backup corner infielder:

Steve Pearce: Relative newbie at 3B, also plays 1B and OF.

Garrett Atkins: Hasn't played much at 3B since 2009.

Josh Fields: Also can play middle infield spots and some outfield; decent power potential.

Andy Marte: Has been very sharp defensively at 3B this spring.

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