Spring Training: Kolb seeks more than spot

Former All-Star closer eyes pivotal role in bullpen

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Pitching coach Jim Colborn, left, has been working with pitcher Dan Kolb on his mechanics.
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Dan Kolb is one of four relievers with Major League Baseball experience but carrying a minor-league contract in the Pirates' camp this spring. He performs with no promises, no guarantee of anything more than a firm handshake by the end of March.

On top of that, he has been assigned No. 87, the type generally reserved for someone lucky to be in Class A ball.

One might think it would be tough to take for someone three years removed from being an All-Star closer.

"You know what? The way I see it, in my mind, everything is still pretty much the same," he said in a quiet tone at his McKechnie Field stall. "My stuff didn't change. My mechanics didn't change. My belief in my abilities didn't change. It's just a matter of getting an opportunity that I can still pitch at the end of the game."

He seems likely to get that opportunity with the Pirates, despite his low profile this spring.

For one, the team has only four relievers with more than one full season major-league season and has no wish to fill all three of its vacancies with such little experience.

For another, the team thought enough of Kolb to offer him a salary of $1.25 million and a maximum $1.3 million in bonuses if he makes the 25-man roster by March 30. That is richer than any of the Pirates' minor-league contracts this offseason.

Above all, the team is of the mind that Kolb does have, as he put it, a chance to reclaim his outstanding form of 2003-04 with the Milwaukee Brewers, when he nailed 60 of 67 saves with a 2.55 ERA and pitched in the All-Star Game.

This despite the two lackluster years that followed: He had a 5.93 ERA with the Atlanta Braves in 2005 and lost the closer's job, then a 4.84 ERA back in Milwaukee last season.

"I've seen this guy in a couple different locations, and the one thing I can tell you is that there's nothing wrong with that arm," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "Somewhere between the first stint in Milwaukee and his time in Atlanta, command became an issue. Now, the key for us is to figure out why."

To that end, pitching coach Jim Colborn and bullpen coach Bobby Cuellar are spending extra time with Kolb to solidify his mechanics.

"He seems to be very receptive, too," Tracy said. "I'll tell you: This could be one of those diamond-in-the-rough types that really pays dividends for you."

Kolb is no less optimistic, mostly because he rediscovered some consistency in the second half of last season: His ERA after the All-Star break was 2.75 in 19 2/3 innings, and that included a run of 14 consecutive scoreless appearances in July and August.

He credited Brewers manager Ned Yost for returning him to late-inning usage.

"More opportunities, better situations," Kolb said. "Early in the year, I was being used anywhere. I think I got into the third inning a couple of times. But, by the end of the year, I was back toward the end of the game again. That's where my adrenaline is. That's where my feel for the game is."

And his feel by season's end?

"I feel like I got a little bit of my '04 season back. Now, I'm just looking to continue what happened in those couple of months."

Even if Kolb makes the Pirates' roster, it apparently would take some doing to get back to the late innings. Salomon Torres is the closer, and management has made clear that Matt Capps and John Grabow -- unquestioned pieces of the team's future -- will get first crack at setup duty.

"I just want to pitch toward the end of the game, whether that's as a setup guy or closer or whatever," Kolb said. "Obviously, they've got Torres here to close. I've pitched against him for a long time now, and I know he's got the stuff to do it. And I'll help him out with anything he needs. I'll be there for him. I'm here to help these guys out and get back to the form I used to have."

At the same time, Kolb, whose idea of a good time is a snowmobile ride in the remote hills of Minnesota, does not profess to be the vocal-leader type.

"I'll give you 100 percent every day. You ask me to throw every day, I'll do it. I don't talk a lot. I basically just let my actions out on the field do the talking."

The other three relievers in camp with major-league experience and minor-league contracts also are right-handers:

Allan Simpson, 29, made two appearances with the Brewers last season and had a 3.37 ERA.

Jim Brower, 34, was shelled for 27 runs in 20 innings with the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres.

Kevin Gryboski, 33, had a 14.29 ERA in six appearances for the Washington Nationals.

Related article

Pirates Notebook: No extra workload for Torres


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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