Pirates outfielder Felix Pie, hoping to grab a roster spot, makes a catch Thursday against the Rays at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The battle for the roster extends beyond the roster.
Every spring training camp has two groups of players compete for spots on the team. Players on the 40-man roster have the inside track. The rest are non-roster invitees, usually minor league free agents hoping to play their way into an opportunity.
They come in different varieties. Some, like young pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, are promising minor leaguers spending time in the major league clubhouse to learn the ways of their future teammates. Some, like veteran pitcher Jose Contreras, use spring training to recover from an injury. Some, like outfielder-third baseman Brad Hawpe and utilityman Brandon Inge, have a track record of major league success but circumstances changed at their last stop.
The rest have talent, but, for whatever reason, their time in the majors has not gone as planned. They come in search of new opportunities.
"I've got to prove that I can play here," said 27-year-old third baseman Jared Goedert, one of the 22 non-roster players in Pirates camp this season. "If I do that, there's a spot, great. If not, maybe there'll be a chance later on. I kind of don't really worry about that as much and go do what I'm capable of doing and have things work out how they work out."
The opportunity is real. Reliever Juan Cruz made the team as a non-roster invitee last season. Pitcher Aaron Cook, a non-roster invitee with the Boston Red Sox last season, made 18 starts for them in 2012.
"Good opportunity, you know, to go back to the majors again," said Felix Pie, a non-roster outfielder who received semi-regular playing time with the Baltimore Orioles a few years ago but spent 2012 in Class AAA Gwinnett while with the Atlanta Braves organization. "Great organization, good people here, good staff, helped me a lot."
The non-roster players benefit the team as well. There are 33 pitchers in Pirates camp, so the three non-roster catchers -- Lucas May, Ali Solis and Carlos Paulino -- allow the workload to be spread more evenly when those pitchers are throwing bullpen sessions. The non-roster spots allow the team to take a low-risk chance on talented players who struggled the previous year, such as left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez.
The non-roster players who don't make the team provide depth in the minors and insurance in case of injury.
"Whatever [manager Clint Hurdle] wants, I'll just go out there and do my job," said Darren Ford, a non-roster outfielder. "I'll just help the team win in any way I can."
Ford, 27, started his professional career in 2004, when the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him in the 18th round out of a New Jersey high school. The Brewers traded him to the San Francisco Giants four years later, and Ford, a speedy player with 332 stolen bases in eight minor league seasons, debuted in September 2010 as a pinch-runner and has a World Series ring to show for it.
"The team and everybody, it was just great," Ford said. "The whole clubhouse, the atmosphere, the fans, everything was great. They gave me an opportunity to play. That's all I'm really looking for."
Pie, 28, appeared in at least 82 games for the Orioles between 2009-11 and hit .274 in 308 plate appearances in 2010. A brief stint in the Independent League last year earned him a shot with the Braves organization, and the Pirates called after he posted a .797 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 96 games in Gwinnett.
Goedert showed power over seven seasons in the minors. He hit 19 home runs in 2012, 18 in 2011 and 27 in 2010.
"I don't necessarily consider myself a power guy," Goedert said. "I just try to make good contact consistently."
The Pirates removed Garrett Jones from Thursday's lineup because of tightness in his left oblique.
He said he felt the tightness in the game Wednesday, but it wasn't the result of a sudden motion, such as a swing.
"It's really nothing serious," Jones said. "I just didn't want it to escalate into anything more serious right now."
McDonald solid in loss
James McDonald pitched four scoreless innings Thursday in the Pirates' 4-2 loss against the Tampa Bay Rays at McKechnie Field.
McDonald walked three batters and allowed one hit. He threw only 29 of his 59 pitches for strikes, although McDonald and manager Clint Hurdle said the location variance was part of the game plan.
"He went up with intent some of those times," Hurdle said. "Not every one that was up was wild."