Until Gregory Polanco arrives, Pirates must fill right-field hole

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BRADENTON, Fla. ----Travis Snider's words suggest the past year has provided him with some clarity about the business of baseball.

Snider, who struggled with a foot injury last year, is focused in camp and more at peace with the process.

He is one of several players trying to become the Pirates starting right fielder. It is one of the more intriguing battles of spring training and it is far from being resolved.

"I've been in camp in spring training where I've earned spots. I've been sent down. I've seen both sides of it. I understand this business," said Snider. "I'm content. Content with the opportunity, but understand the work it's going to take coming out here every single day, progressing and getting a little bit better. [It's about] understanding an evaluation is going to take place.

"For me, my job is not to worry about the evaluation."

It is no secret that one of the twists to the plot is that the Pirates are grooming top prospect Gregory Polanco for the position. He is projected to be promoted the major league roster this summer after a few more months of seasoning in Class AAA Indianapolis.

Until that moment arrives -- and it will be a big one -- the Pirates must find an everyday right fielder or figure out a platoon between a right-handed hitter and a left-handed one.

So the spring evaluation centers around Snider, Jaff Decker, and non-roster player Chris Dickerson (all left-handed batters) along with Jose Tabata, a right-handed hitter.

"Each guy has shown flashes that are very positive and each guy has shown things we have to work on," said general manager Neal Huntington. "Travis first and foremost is healthy, and that's a good sign. He's put some really good swings on some balls.

"Jose is moving around the outfield well, has put some good swings on, and Jaff Decker is getting comfortable being a Pirate. Chris is another guy who has shown flashes, some speed and an ability to move around the outfield."

There is no surefire skill that will separate one from the pack, said manager Clint Hurdle. Instead, the Pirates are looking for a package of skills that include all the obvious needs.

"All the guys their actual tool-sets are somewhat similar. The reps, the experience -- those things'll come into play," said Hurdle. "We'll watch and bundle some at-bats where they can all get in good rhythm and good grove and see who's giving us the best approach, the best at-bats and who's giving us the best defense out there."

The Pirates brass will base its evaluation on the quality of at-bats, said Hurdle, as well as the ability to get on base, play defense and run the bases.

Decker, 24, had just 26 at-bats with the San Diego Padres last year with limited success and has been in this position before.

"I wouldn't say it's necessarily battling with somebody. But we push each other here," said Decker. "One guy gets a hit, and you don't feel like you need to, but it's a competition. Not really pushing against anybody just going out and playing the game. Put your mind where your feet are."

The Pirates have liked his spark so far.

"We knew he had average, could play all three positions in the outfield and, if you can play center field in the major leagues, you've got some speed, got some range," said Hurdle. "He's just a backyard ballplayer. Moved the bat around, gets on base. We like what we've seen."

Dickerson, 31, has played with the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles over six seasons.

He was 4 for 10, with three walks and two stolen bases heading into the weekend. Dickerson also hit safely in each of his first five spring games and flashed speed on the basepaths.

The club is looking for more consistency from Tabata, 25, who had a superb August last year filling in for the injured Starling Marte. He hit .310 with six walks, but also had 10 strikeouts.

"I don't know what's going to happen," said Tabata. "A lot of guys, Dickerson, Snider, Decker, everybody can do the job. Whatever happens is fine. The only thing I want is to win every day. When Clint needs me, I want to do a good job. Whatever happens, I've got to be ready every day."

Snider might have the most power potential. The former top prospect for Toronto hit 14 home runs in 2010, but struggled to hit .215 last year because of a toe injury that turned out to be worse than originally expected and required offseason surgery.

"It's not what I'm hanging my hat on. I had a toe injury, and that's not my excuse. It's not the way I was brought up," said Snider.

"Being able to experience the ups and the downs personally and as a team helped me grow a lot as a person. I understand the greatness that takes place in this locker every single day from the top to the bottom. [I understand] what's preached, what's practiced more importantly. No matter what your personal circumstances are you can sit and make as many excuses as you want, but that's not getting it done. We're about getting it done."

And though Polanco has looked like a special prospect at times, the chance of him cracking the roster out of spring is a long shot.

"We're not close-minded to it. But there are some things beyond his control," said Huntington. "He's working hard to control the things he can. He has shown the flashes of what we're so excited about. He's also shown some things he's got to work on for a guy who has 250 at-bats at the [Class] AA level."

Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @JennMenendez.

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