Hot Stove: Morgan speeds from rink to 40-man roster

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Nyjer Morgan

flipped open his cell phone Monday in Hawaii, where he was playing winter ball, and saw a text message that said, simply, "On."

Then, he flipped out.

The word had come from his agent, and it meant he had been placed on the Pirates' 40-man roster.

"Oh, I can't even describe how I felt," he said over that same phone a few days later. "So many emotions. This was a lot of work for me, man. A long process."

Long?

Gee, imagine how satisfying that feeling is for players who have applied themselves full time to baseball for more than, oh, five years or so.

Morgan, 26, was committed entirely to hockey as a teenager, leaving his native northern California to play for Regina in Canada's upper-tier Western Hockey League. Four teammates, including former Penguins center Kris Beech, reached the NHL.

Morgan's dream?

"I wanted to play for Pittsburgh," he said. "I loved their teams in the '90s, with Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens and Tom Barrasso."

Morgan was Regina's fastest skater despite a late start to his hockey career, but his hands were more reminiscent of Jay Caufield's than Lemieux's, and goals were sparse. He tried to be a tough guy, but there is little market for 6-foot enforcers, so he went a different way.

He had dabbled in baseball, but never took it seriously until enrolling into Walla Walla Community College in Washington state at age 20.

He was sent to center field to capitalize on his speed, but his defense was ragged. His speed rated a 70 on the scouts' scale that tops out at 80, but he was thrown out half the time he tried to steal. Still, he showed enough raw skill that the Pirates drafted him in the 33rd round in 2002.

And Morgan's progress since then has been almost as quick as he is: This past season, he had a .304 average, a .375 on-base percentage and 59 steals in 117 games for Class A Lynchburg and Class AA Altoona. In the Hawaiian season that ended Tuesday, he had a .294 average that ranked fifth in the league, a .368 on-base percentage and 20 steals.

Morgan said he mostly focused on "showing the Pirates I have some power, too," and he produced three doubles, five triples and a home run among his 35 hits.

That performance cemented the Pirates' decision to add Morgan to the 40-man roster and protect him from the Rule 5 draft Dec. 7.

"Nyjer has so much physical talent. Impact talent," director of player development Brian Graham said. "He might be one of the fastest guys in professional baseball."

Will Morgan make it to Pittsburgh?

He should start next season at Class AAA Indianapolis, so he will be one step away. But he will turn 27 in June, which is plenty old for a prospect.

To hear him tell it, though, there should be no doubt.

"I figure I'm the leadoff man there, dude," Morgan said. "I get on base and make things happen. I'm exciting. I'll walk, get hit by a pitch, steal, whatever it takes. I'll create. You'll see."

Buried treasure

The Pirates are considering having their January minicamp at PNC Park rather than Bradenton, Fla., for the first time.

Starter Paul Maholm, who missed the final two weeks of last season to a tight shoulder, does not plan to pitch at minicamp. "I feel fine, but I need to do what's best for the season, and that's to be ready for spring training," he said.

Closer Mike Gonzalez, the other pitcher shut down at season's end, had his elbow tested a week ago and will be ready for spring training.

The Pirates feel it is unlikely they will lose anyone in the Rule 5 draft. The only prospect exposed is starter Wardell Starling, who went 10-9 with a 2.98 ERA for Lynchburg and Altoona, but whose erratic command in Hawaii -- 13 walks in 31 innings -- should deter interest.

No prospect has shined this offseason like Jesse Chavez, the right-handed reliever acquired in the Kip Wells trade. In the Arizona Fall League season that ended last weekend, he was charged with one earned run in 14 innings for Grand Canyon. General manager Dave Littlefield cites Chavez as a contender to make the big team.

First baseman Brad Eldred, just finished in Arizona, is heading to the Dominican Republic to join Escogido.

Eighty-one days until pitchers and catchers report.



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