Hot Stove: Andy LaRoche 'starting fresh'

Pirates' third baseman eager to bury two poor months in 2008

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That torn right thumb is finally, fully healed, Andy LaRoche will insist. But the confidence that clearly crumbled in those two mercilessly cruel months that followed his trade to Pittsburgh last summer?

Might take a while.

"I won't lie to you: I was down on myself. I really was," the Pirates' third baseman was recalling the other day. "Nothing was going my way, and it felt like I was putting all my energy just into fighting through it."

So, once the season ended on that September afternoon in San Diego and yet another awful slump -- 5 for 33 -- and that .152 average had been buried with it, LaRoche and hitting coach Don Long worked out a plan: They would meet regularly through the offseason, including LaRoche flying to Long's home near Seattle to spend a few days there, to address a timing issue between LaRoche's upper and lower body during his swing.

That much, judging by LaRoche's smooth, powerful stroke displayed in minicamp two weeks ago, might be progressing.

"And I'll get the confidence back, too. I know I will," LaRoche said. "I've had a lot of success in the minor leagues, a lot of people who have believed in me, and I'm not going to let two bad months or the fact that I stunk when I first got here ruin that. I'm starting fresh."

One element to which LaRoche clings: He was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers' system entering the 2007 season by Baseball America, No. 33 overall in baseball entering last season. He is a career .295 hitter in the minors, with a terrific .382 on-base percentage and 95 home runs in 1,800 at-bats.

And he is only 25 years old, with 111 games in the majors.

"That's the thing, the knowledge that I've hit all my life," LaRoche said. "I just need to start fresh."

Management is committed to giving LaRoche a chance as the everyday third baseman, partly because he is out of options, partly because he was one of the key acquisitions in the Jason Bay trade, but largely because of his potential. He is not a complete lock, but he would need to struggle at that 2008 level for prospect Neil Walker or someone else to have a chance.

"I can understand what Andy went through," manager John Russell said. "He felt he had big shoes to fill because of the trade, his brother was on our team, and he put a lot on himself. Then, once he struggles, he hears it from the fans and media, which is understandable and ... he's not the only one it's happened to. The big thing is for Andy to relax, take instruction, and we're going to give him the opportunity to do that."

Buried treasure

• Expect the Pirates to entertain trade offers for first baseman Adam LaRoche later in the year, but not soon. The market is not right, with the glut of corner bats available through free agency.

• The team's global reach is expanding: Scouting director Greg Smith confirmed the hiring of three additional full-time international scouts, one each for Taiwan/Korea, Australia and Europe.

• Walker is aware of management's plans for LaRoche at third base -- and that Pedro Alvarez probably will catch up from behind at some point -- but he does not sound worried: "I can't be thinking about whether they might move me. Hopefully, it's a good problem, where everybody's doing well and we force them to find places for us." Walker, a football wide receiver at Pine-Richland High School, is athletic enough for the outfield, but no move is being planned.

• Reliever John Grabow, hindered at times in his career by elbow chips, decided again this offseason not to have a procedure. He instead focused anew on his program that strengthens the shoulder, elbow and all nearby muscles to fortify the arm, all with continued positive results. "I feel great," he said.

• The team's offseason conditioning program has included more face-to-face visits from strength coach Frank Velasquez and his staff than during new management's first offseason. "We're not just giving everyone a plan and calling them," president Frank Coonelly said. "We're more proactive."

• New outfielder Eric Hinske is going from the American League champions to the Pirates, but he had a similar experience just last year, going from the World Series champion Boston Red Sox to a Tampa Bay team that stunned everyone: "Sometimes, it's just changing the culture a little bit. You've got to learn how to win. It's not something that happens overnight. But, once you get a taste of it, like we did last year with the Rays, it was a fun ride. Hopefully, we can get on a track like that here."

• Two key spring training dates: First workout for pitchers and catchers is at noon Feb. 14. First full-squad workout is 9 a.m. Feb. 17.

• Only 12 days until pitchers and catchers report.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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