BRADENTON, Fla. -- Steve Pearce, anyone?
The way the Pirates' spring training is unfolding, particularly the depth charts at right field and first base, it would be easy to surmise that management has all but buried Pearce's prodigious 2007 in which he slugged his way from Class A Lynchburg to Pittsburgh.
General manager Neal Huntington is adamant that is not the case.
"Ironically, if Steve had fallen in our eyes, he might have a better chance to make the club, because we'd be looking at him just in a bench role," Huntington said. "We'd rather give him a chance to show he can play every day."
Pause for a breakdown of Huntington's rationale ...
• Eric Hinske is a lock to be one of the two reserve outfielders, and Craig Monroe and Jeff Salazar are the other possibilities. Pearce's name only rarely comes up in this category, largely because management prefers not to limit his duty to the bench.
• Adam LaRoche is the everyday first baseman, but he can become a free agent after this season, and there is little indication the Pirates will make a serious bid to keep him for the long term. Management would prefer to use Pearce as a first baseman because of his defensive limitations, but little playing time is available this year.
Back to Huntington ...
"As we all know, Adam might not be a Pirate next year," he said. "A young player has a hard time getting better without playing. In Steve's case, we may want to see him spending more time at first to get comfortable. We want to see if he can take that job next year."
Sure seems like Pearce's chance of breaking camp with the big club is minimal.
"Not necessarily," Huntington continued. "If he's the best outfield option and we can get him enough at-bats -- which we should be able to because he's right-handed and we have all left-handed bats out there -- that's one way. If Adam needs a day off at first, we can work out a way to get him enough at-bats at both."
So, there is a chance?
"Steve is absolutely in the mix to make this team out of spring training."
Still, the path most clearly lit is the one that sends Pearce, who will turn 26 next month, back for a fourth stint at Class AAA Indianapolis.
Pearce's approach is predictable.
"I came here to make the team. That's my goal," he said. "I know last year wasn't a good year, but 2007 was a great year. I just need to get back to that. And I think they know what I'm capable of doing."
In that 2007, Pearce tore up four levels with a cumulative .328 average, 31 home runs and 119 RBIs, for which Topps and MLB.com named him baseball's minor league player of the year.
Last year, most of which was spent in Indianapolis, he sunk to .251 with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs in the minors. In 36 games with the Pirates, most of them late in the summer, he batted .248 with four home runs and 15 RBIs.
Quite the backward step.
But Pearce and hitting coach Don Long spent some of this offseason studying film of Pearce in 2007, and each now is speaking optimistically that such form is returning.
"The thing we really worked on last year was his ability to follow the ball a little longer with his eyes," Long said. "He's a fastball hitter, which you like. You want guys to be ready to attack the fastball. His challenge was staying off other stuff out of the zone. And he did progress with that."
Long also pointed to preparation.
"You can't just come in here and slug your way through batting practice. Sure, be up there ready to attack. But you have to be able to recognize which pitches you can really hit hard, and which pitches you need to lay off. You have to do things with a plan."
Pearce smiles when the subject of a plan is raised.
"I get into the box now, and it's like, 'Yeah, that's how 2007 felt,' " he said. "When my hands are a certain way, I'm not worried where my feet are. It's just coming naturally. Now, it's just getting into that launching position."
"Hey, I know it's still in there somewhere. I've just got to find it."
So far this spring, Pearce has made only four plate appearances in the team's six exhibitions, going 1 for 3 with a double, walk and RBI.