The Pirates did not bench second baseman Freddy Sanchez twice last week to hold down his plate appearances and keep him from triggering an $8.5 million vesting option for 2010, team president Frank Coonelly said last night.
And Coonelly made plenty clear his displeasure at being asked about it by the Post-Gazette.
"I am very surprised and, quite frankly, offended that anyone would suggest that, in the middle of our worst slump in his tenure as a major league manager, John Russell would do anything other than put out the lineup he believes gives us the best chance to win the most baseball games," Coonelly said, referring to the eight-game losing streak the Pirates carried into last night. "A player's contractual clause has no bearing on J.R.'s lineup or player usage."
Coonelly said Sanchez was rested as part of the team's plan to keep its regulars fresh.
"J.R. has shown his desire to give his players, especially veterans, an occasional day off to keep them strong and healthy over the course of the season," Coonelly said. "J.R. also feels it is important to use his bench frequently to keep them sharp. J.R.'s use of Freddy and every other regular this year, just like last year, reflects these two strongly held views and have nothing to do with any individual player's contract clause."
Sanchez's clause works this way: If he makes 635 or more plate appearances this season, or if he makes 600 plate appearances and is chosen for the All-Star Game, his $8.5 million option is automatic. If he does not break those thresholds, the Pirates still can pick up the option if they choose.
Sanchez has been out of the starting lineup three times in the first 32 games, including Thursday and Sunday of last week. That gave him three days off in a five-day span, including the team's off-day Monday.
He started last night and still is on pace to make 668 plate appearances.
With shortstop Jack Wilson's return from the disabled list, the Pirates optioned Brian Bixler back to Class AAA Indianapolis after a miserable stint in which he batted .200, struck out 18 times in 25 at-bats and committed two errors.
"That's hard to do," Russell said of Bixler's strikeout rate. "He's down, frustrated. But we hope it was a good learning experience for him."
Bixler, 26, is a career .285 hitter in the minors, .165 in the majors.
Robinzon Diaz made his second start in a row behind the plate after batting .381 in his first six games and, more striking, was moved up to fifth in the lineup, a clear sign Russell is prepared to give him a larger role. When Ryan Doumit was injured two weeks ago, Russell had indicated Jason Jaramillo would get the bulk of the catching duty.
"I like J.J., but Diaz is swinging the bat well, and we want to take advantage of that," Russell said. "We're lucky to have two good, young catchers."
• The Pirates' full front office, including owner Bob Nutting, held extensive meetings yesterday to discuss the June 9 amateur draft.
• Closer Matt Capps was available to pitch after missing a week to a bruised right elbow.
• Reliever Craig Hansen, improving slowly from the strained upper back that has him on the disabled list, is scheduled to throw his first bullpen session Friday.
• Russell, on first baseman Adam LaRoche, one of three players known to have spoken up in that players-only meeting Saturday in New York: "He's kind of the backbone of our team, a quiet leader. He's even-keel but, if people think it doesn't bother him when we're not winning, that would be wrong."