Hot Stove: New coach bats away rookie worries

Ritchie, on Alvarez, Walker, Tabata: 'It's an exciting group'

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Gregg Ritchie, the Pirates' new hitting coach, had traveled just about the whole world of baseball: He had been their minor-league hitting coordinator for five years. Spent the previous decade teaching in the Chicago White Sox's system. Played 10 years in the San Francisco Giants' system, as well as tours in Mexico and Taiwan. Operated his own baseball school each offseason. Had patents on teaching devices called "The Hitter's Seat" and "The Pitch."

But the major leagues?

"It's a dream come true, and I get a chance to live it," Ritchie said by phone from his Virginia home this week. "I can't tell you how blessed I feel."

Some might see taking over the Pirates' offense differently, of course: The team ranked last in the National League with a .242 average and .304 on-base percentage, and third-to-last with 126 home runs.

Winter Meetings
  • What: Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings.
  • Where: , Walt Disney World Swan hotel, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
  • When: Monday-Thursday.
  • Rule 5 draft: The Pirates will pick No. 1 overall. The draft begins at 9 a.m. Thursday

At the same time, he will inherit a lineup in which half of the everyday eight -- Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata -- would appear to have their best years ahead.

"It's an exciting group," Ritchie said. "And I'm especially fortunate in that I've had a chance to work with all of them closely."

Ritchie's plan for the Pirates' hitters sounded much like that of his predecessor, Don Long, in that it stresses only the most cautious of tinkering with mechanics: "It's about understanding a guy, having a relationship, having a trust and having a common cause."

It also stresses having a flexible approach rather than, say, emphasizing taking pitches for walks: "What's in front of your eyeballs? What does the pitcher have to offer? What situation are we in? If there's a situation where we need to be aggressive, we've got to understand that. If it's a pitcher who doesn't throw many strikes, we've got to understand that. If you work the process and have a team concept that we're going to be run-producers, all that takes care of itself."

Regarding the Pirates' three promising rookies, Ritchie was asked to address the three most commonly expressed concerns for each.

On whether Alvarez has a hole in his swing, something brought up much less often once he went on his September rampage: "If you look at Pedro as he moved from one level to the next, it was a consistent learning process. You'd see him struggle a little bit, then bam! He'd go to the next level, struggle a little bit, then bam! This guy has just made fabulous adjustments. So, no, that's not a concern at all."

On whether Walker's numbers, which were better than most of his minor-league history, were an aberration: "It's going to be about repeating the consistency of things. Neil's a talented guy, and he's made advances the whole way through the system. There's no reason why that can't continue."

On Tabata hitting only four home runs: "Becoming a consistently good hitter, from a team approach, is everything. All the rest builds and builds. A hitter like Jose, who shows tremendous barrel control, that's going to be the most important thing. He's going to continue to get better."

Buried treasure

• The Pirates head to the Winter Meetings, beginning Monday, with a shopping list largely comprised of a starting pitcher or two, a first baseman/right fielder and a shortstop. Here is one shortstop who might be available: Jack Wilson, 32, is coming off another injury-plagued season with Seattle -- 61 games, .249 average -- and the Mariners might be going toward a youth movement. He is due $5 million next season. In 2009, split between the Pirates and Mariners, Wilson won the Fielding Bible award as the majors' best at his position.

• Early pick for the Pirates' No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 draft Thursday: Aneury Rodriguez, 22-year-old Class AAA starter in the ultra-deep Tampa Bay system. In 27 appearances, including 17 starts, he had a 3.80 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 114 innings.

• The Pirates think enough of shortstop prospect Pedro Ciriaco's potential that, after his September/October stint in the majors, he was invited to spend 10 days in Bradenton for additional work on his hitting approach in the Florida Instructional League. The reason: Even when Ciriaco hits well, his on-base percentage is terribly low because he seldom walks. In 121 at-bats for Class AAA Indianapolis before his promotion, he batted .281 but with just two walks.

• There is word that the Pirates will create a new developmental position called rehab pitching coordinator, someone to work with pitching coordinator Jim Benedict with an emphasis on players recovering from injuries. It would be filled by Scott Mitchell, who had been the Class AAA pitching coach in the Florida Marlins' system.

• Walker will be the only player being recognized with a bobblehead giveaway in 2011. Only one last year was McCutchen.

• Seventy days until pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton.

Dejan Kovacevic: . Find more at PBC Blog .


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