Pirates second baseman embraces union role

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Major League Baseball Players Association had a busy year.

The union was involved in negotiating rule changes that expanded instant replay and limited contact between baserunners and catchers at home plate. It also dealt with the fallout and suspensions from the Biogenesis investigation. Some of the union’s work came under new executive director Tony Clark, who replaced the late Michael Weiner in December.

Neil Walker, the Pirates union representative, said the drastic changes taking place in baseball did not really affect his role, but he noticed more interest among players in the goings-on of the league.

“I think the knowledge of what’s going on has changed a little bit with some of the stuff that’s gone on during the offseason,” Walker said. “The instant replay stuff, the stuff that’s gone on with Alex Rodriguez, things along those lines. It’s good to make sure you have all your information, it’s good to make sure that everybody’s informed well on the team. But it’s really not much different than it has been in the past.”

Walker said the team’s meeting with Clark early in camp allowed players to bring themselves up to speed on the state of steroid testing and punishment in the game after the Biogenesis suspensions. Several major leaguers accepted 50-game suspensions after their alleged involvement in the Miami area anti-aging clinic and performance-enhancing drugs. Ryan Braun took a 65-game suspension and Rodriguez received a 211-game ban, only to go to war with anyone and everyone and get it reduced to 162 games in an arbitration hearing.

“I think the consensus around baseball is that guys want it cleaned up as much as they can,” Walker said. “Guys want an even playing field, guys want to have it be a fair thing. … I know as a players association, we’ve already had much more testing early on than we have and that’s kind of the whole process. We’re all an open book and we’re going to make this as even as we can.”

Walker inherited the role from Paul Maholm, and Tony Watson and Jared Hughes help him. He said he enjoys the responsibility of the role.

“It’s good to have quite a few people that are interested and want to know what’s going on so that we’re all on the same page and we know the ins and outs of the new rules and things like that, because the game’s changing,” he said. “We just have to embrace it.”

The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2016, so negotiations regarding major changes — such as the qualifying offer that has at times paralyzed the market for free agents — won’t begin for a while. Walker said Clark would serve well as a union leader.

“I think he’s brought on the right people, he’s brought on people who know what they’re doing and he’s going to fight for us for sure,” he said.

Rotation plans

Manager Clint Hurdle outlined the team’s tentative plans for the rest of the rotation.

After Francisco Liriano starts opening day against the Chicago Cubs, Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez will start the next two games. Gerrit Cole will start the first game in St. Louis April 4 against the Cardinals. Liriano will follow, by virtue of an off day next Tuesday, with Edinson Volquez making his debut April 6 against the Cardinals.

Liriano, who left his most recent start because of tightness in his left groin, is scheduled to pitch Wednesday in a simulated game or minor league game.

“Control it to some degree early, just to get a feel and a flow,” Hurdle said. “And then have some hitters. Whatever happens in the game, happens in the game. He’s got to cover, he’s got to move, he’s got to do those things.”

Buried treasure

Jeff Locke will throw three innings or 50 pitches today at Pirate City. … A rainout Monday against the Detroit Tigers will push the scheduled pitchers back a day. Rodriguez will start today against the Toronto Blue Jays, followed by Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson. Melancon will pitch two innings. … Bryan Morris pitched Monday in the batting cage against hitters.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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