Spring Training: Middle infield center of bench attention

Josh Wilson, Rivas impress management in early games

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It could be that Josh Wilson and Luis Rivas are battling for one backup middle infielder's job on the Pirates' roster.

Or, it could be that there is no job to be had.

Consider the many moving pieces that comprise the team's bench scenario:

• Will Ryan Doumit catch, as he has all spring? He could beat out Ronny Paulino to start -- no one should rule that out -- or be part of a platoon. If it is deemed he should not catch at all, then he goes to the outfield and another catcher, likely Raul Chavez, becomes the backup.

• Will Nate McLouth beat out Nyjer Morgan for center field? If McLouth loses, he goes to the bench. If he wins, Morgan likely would go to the minors and clear an outfield spot for ... Doumit ... Kevin Thompson?

• Will Doug Mientkiewicz show he can be a utility player by adding third base and the corner outfield spots to his repertoire? If so, he and free-agent signing Chris Gomez can be the backup infielders, with one caveat ...

• Can Gomez still play shortstop?

All of the above will figure prominently, but that last one might have the greatest direct impact on Wilson and Rivas.

Gomez, 36, has spent 1,048 games at shortstop, but only 26 in the past three years with the Baltimore Orioles. His most recent serious action there was 77 games in 2004 with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"You're not going to play much ahead of Miguel Tejada, so it's been a while since I've been at short regularly," Gomez said. "But I've always gotten work there, and I'm definitely comfortable."

So far, the spring observation has been limited to one B-game, so the door remain opens for the others to show their stuff.

Wilson, 27, should get the longest look.

A member of Mt. Lebanon High School's 1999 PIAA Class AAA championship team, he has mostly bounced around the professional circuit since then, but finally began making inroads to the majors the past three years. That was capped by 105 games last season with the Washington Nationals and Tampa Bay Rays, for whom he batted .251 with two home runs and 24 RBIs.

That average included a numbing hitless streak of 35 at-bats in late September, something that might have prompted the Rays to cut him off their 40-man roster in December.

When they did, the Pirates claimed him off waivers, giving him a chance to suit up for his hometown team.

"It's special," Wilson said. "I've always been a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, even when I was playing for other organizations. Now that I've put this uniform on ... it's pretty cool."

It will take more than sentimentality to keep it on, though, and his early showing has been moderately encouraging: He is 3 for 11 with a double, three RBIs, two walks and a sacrifice bunt. He also has looked fundamentally sound if not spectacular in the field, including shortstop, and on the basepaths.

And, if it is versatility the Pirates seek, the guy can pitch, too: On June 8, he worked a scoreless inning -- a hit and a walk in there -- against the Florida Marlins.

"Just trying to play my hardest and let the chips fall where they may," Wilson said. "I don't know what the future holds. I just know that today I'm going to go out there, play well and do my best. By the end of camp, if I keep doing that, hopefully, it means I'm on the team."

Rivas, 28, has taken the opposite career path.

He rocketed through Minnesota's system and debuted with the Twins as a 21-year-old, then became a fixture at second base in 2001-04. His averages those four years: .266, .256, .259 and .256.

But the ascent lost its traction in that span, and Rivas has spent all but 63 games of the past three years in the minors trying to get it back.

He spent all last season with Cleveland's Class AAA affiliate in Buffalo and was named the Bisons' comeback player of the year after batting .263 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs.

General manager Neal Huntington, with the Indians at the time, knew him well and offered a minor-league contract, as well as a genuine chance to make the Pirates' roster.

"I'm here, and I appreciate it," Rivas said. "I just want to work hard and do everything well. I feel like I have a chance. I do. But I know I have to do everything right."

Especially defensively, and that is where Rivas has stood out. From the opening drills of the spring at Pirate City, his glove work -- and pristine footwork -- was drawing raves from management, as well as playful hoots and hollers from teammates.

At the plate, he is 6 for 13 with a triple, double, an RBI and two walks. The triple was a drive off the center-field fence yesterday in the seventh inning of the 4-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers at McKechnie Field.

"Both Josh and Luis are doing things that you look for in a utility player," manager John Russell said. "It could make our decision tough. We'll probably have to look at this one pretty hard."

That, and several others.

"We're still early on Mientkiewicz being able to play around the diamond. He's looked fine, but we still need to take more time to get a true read on that," Huntington said. "Gomez has done everything expected of him, but we still want to get a stronger feel for him up the middle. There is a series of questions we need to have answered. But we still have plenty of time."

Not that much, though: Wilson is out of options, and Rivas has an escape clause that allows him to become a free agent if he is not added to the 25-man roster by the end of spring.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . First Published March 6, 2008 5:00 AM


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