Spring Training: A seismic shift for Eldred

Pirates begin outfield lessons for power-hitter

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Brad Eldred worked on catching fly balls and other outfield drills with Pirates instructor Bill Virdon for an hour before the game yesterday.
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The ball was hit high and deep, soaring toward the right-field fence at McKechnie Field, the kind of ball that might come ringing off Brad Eldred's bat.

Only this time, Eldred was wearing a glove, squinting into the blazing sun and sprinting back to track it down.

And leaping.

And reaching.

And ... catching.

Just before Big Country made a big impact with the padded wall.

"Wasn't pretty, but at least I caught it," Eldred said later. "Felt good."

It was the behemoth first baseman's inaugural shagging session, coming just before the Pirates' 5-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays yesterday, and not long after being told in the morning that management wants to take a look at him in the outfield.

The idea is to increase his defensive versatility and, in turn, his chance of making the 25-man roster this spring.

He took the news well.

"You always want to feel like you've got a chance," Eldred said, smiling. "And I'll take it, no matter how it happens."

The tryout, in essence, began yesterday and will continue through the spring. He will shag flies before games or at Pirate City and, if all goes well, get some innings in a game.

To be sure, it was Eldred who instigated the move, if only through his early offense: He has homered in four of his first six games and is batting .500 -- 7 for 14 -- with five RBIs and three walks. Yesterday, he came off the bench and, in two plate appearances, lashed a single to left and walked.

That makes for a terribly small sample size, but the Pirates also have been impressed, in a general sense, with Eldred's new stay-back stance that has allowed him to be more selective and make more consistent contact.

"It's been very intriguing to watch," manager Jim Tracy said.

The Pirates entered camp concerned that Eldred would be rusty, given that he missed almost all of 2006 with Class AAA Indianapolis to a broken left thumb. That was the primary reason general manager Dave Littlefield repeatedly referred to Eldred as being ticketed for Indianapolis to start this season.

No more.

"Our general thought was that he would need the at-bats in the minors to catch up on the 600 he missed last year, but he's off to a good start," Littlefield said yesterday. "It is early in spring training and, as we've seen, the competition can vary drastically. But it's obviously a good sign that he's swinging the bat effectively. So we'll keep our eyes open and keep encouraging him."

It had appeared, entering camp, that there was no room for Eldred. First base belonged to Adam LaRoche, and Tracy prefers his bench players to know more than one position.

At the same time, the Pirates, whose 141 home runs were fewest in the National League last season, can ill afford to leave one of the most powerful men in the sport off the team if he is hitting to his potential.

So, in a sense, they met halfway.

Eldred made it known earlier this week that he would embrace an opportunity to try the outfield, where he spent half his career at Florida International University. And the Pirates, who have Xavier Nady as their right fielder but are wide open regarding backups, offered to give it a try.

"LaRoche is our first baseman, so we'll look at all options," Littlefield said. "The good news is -- and this is what you tell the player -- we want you to force our hand. Show us that you're deserving of being on this team."

It is uncommon, though not unheard of, for someone Eldred's size -- 6 feet 5, 275 pounds -- to play the outfield. The Cincinnati Reds' Adam Dunn presents the best example. He is an inch taller and the same weight, and he plays left field ... though not particularly elegantly.

For what it is worth, Eldred has 30 stolen bases and five triples in four-plus professional seasons. He broke to steal yesterday, too, but the pitch was fouled off.

"In general, you don't see too many people his size playing the outfield," Littlefield said. "But we'll see how it goes. You'd rather leave it up to the player to show you what they can or can't do."

During the shagging session yesterday, Eldred received constant advice from outfield instructor Bill Virdon, a superb glove man in his day.

"I was really kind of pleased," Virdon said. "He seemed to move maybe a little bit better than you might think that big a man would move. His hands were good, too. He caught everything."

But ...

"You can get humbled pretty quickly in the outfield, especially against big-league hitters with how hard they hit the ball and how it tails and sails. There's a little more to it than just catching fungoes."

"I hadn't been out there in a while, so Bill mostly was going over fundamentals," Eldred said. "I've done it in the past, so I wasn't uncomfortable or anything. It was fun."

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


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