Brian Bixler reinvents himself

BRADENTON, Fla. -- He wears the same No. 10. He carries the same surname across his shoulders. He plays the same shortstop position.

But that is not the same Brian Bixler out there.

"He looks like a different guy," Pirates manager John Russell said.

"It's night and day," added roving coordinator Rich Donnelly.

Bixler is a remade baseball player -- at shortstop, at the plate and now at second base as well.

"I do feel a lot better. A lot better," Bixler said. "I can tell the difference. I feel a lot more comfortable. That's the big thing: comfort. And confidence."

Bixler, a second-round selection from Eastern Michigan University in 2004, has gone from a .157 average and eight errors in 50 Pirates games last season to one of this spring training's stars.

He added three hits, two stolen bases and two double plays Tuesday night to a spring portfolio that already placed him amid the spring leaders among regulars in batting average, at .333, and triples, with three. And he also has adapted to second base so adroitly that his utility, his versatility plus his bat off the bench could earn him a roster spot come opening day, rather than a return, at 26, to Class AAA Indianapolis for a third season with management's intent of playing him every day.

"He's put himself in a very good position," Russell said. "[Utility infielder Luis] Cruz has played well. Bix has played well. We'll continue to look at it. Bix has made a very strong case for himself, obviously."

Perhaps even to the point where such recent draftees as Jordy Mercer, Chase d'Arnaud and Jarek Cunningham aren't necessarily the shortstop of the future, and Shelby Ford isn't necessarily thesecond baseman of the future. Either position conceivably could become Bixler's.

"Brian has made quality improvements, both offensively and defensively," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We may come to that situation where you don't want a young player that's progressing and developing to sit on the bench. We're working through that in our own minds. Is Brian a long-term candidate at either [shortstop or second]? If so, do we risk stunting his development by having him playing in a bench role to start the season? That's where that short-term/long-term equation always comes in."

With regular shortstop Jack Wilson plagued by injuries last season, Bixler got 45 at-bats last March and April, 35 in May and no more in the majors until a September call-up afforded him another 27. The batting results grew progressively worse each time, too: .200 to .143 to .111. His defense needed polish as well, evidenced by the eight errors.

Off he went in October to the Instructional League, where he refurbished his swing with minor-league hitting coordinator Greg Ritchie. Bixler almost spent as much time in Pirate City in the offseason as at home in Sandusky, Ohio. He worked further with Pirates hitting coach Don Long, then with new infield coach Perry Hill, who was impressed how quickly Bixler adapted to steady play at a second base he manned only on rare occasion in the minors.

The hitting seemed to come around first, Bixler said, thanks to lessening the body movement in his swing: "It just clicked. There were adjustments that needed to be made. It showed."

Defense came later. Bixler, with two errors in his first 20 spring games, feels refreshed and renewed there, too.

"Never laid eyes on him before," Hill said. "I got the skinny from other people and watching film of him before. In my humble opinion, it's harder to go from shortstop to second base. When you think of it, everything you do at shortstop is in front of you. At second base, 50 percent of what you do is behind you: your pivot, your throw ... it's a tough switch. Bottom line is, he's done it."

"I saw him in the minor leagues. He was a very good player," Russell added. "When he came up, I don't think he was quite ready, as far as the mental side of the game. I think he learned a lot, I really do. He knew he had to make a lot of adjustments. He did."

Donnelly talked about how apprehensive Bixler appeared last season with the Pirates, how "much more composed and much more mature" he appears now. "It looks to me like he thinks he belongs here," Donnelly said.

Whether all this puts him on the Pirates' roster or back in Indianapolis for more everyday duty, Bixler doesn't know.

"The only thing I'm going to do, I'm going to keep working," he said. "However it works out is how it's supposed to be. It's kind of out of my hands. I'm just going to play."

Chuck Finder can be reached at First Published March 27, 2009 4:00 AM

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