Spring Training: Monroe has upper hand
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BRADENTON , Fla. -- There is, in the formal sense, a duel for the Pirates' only available reserve outfield spot. But it is shaping up to be fairly one-sided.
Or unfairly, perhaps.
Management signed Jeff Salazar, a one-time top prospect and most recently a bench man with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to a minor league contract Dec. 27 with the full intent of having him fill the same role in Pittsburgh .
Then, Craig Monroe was signed near the end of January, also to a minor league contract. He, unlike Salazar, is right-handed, a much-needed commodity for an all-lefty outfield.
Then, Eric Hinske was signed later that week, this to a major league contract, making him a lock.
So much for Salazar?
"When we signed Jeff, we thought he had a great chance to make our major league team," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Unfortunately for him, we signed Hinske and are very left-handed heavy, so ... I've talked to Jeff about it. Of all the players impacted by the Hinske signing, it was probably Jeff as much as anybody."
Salazar, 28, has spent parts of the past three seasons in Major League Baseball, reaching a career-high 90 games with Arizona in 2008 and batting .211 with two home runs. Those figures are richly unimpressive, but he was the Colorado Rockies' minor league player of the year in 2003 by slugging 29 home runs and 98 RBIs for Class A Asheville while playing all three outfield positions well.
The sky seemed the limit.
To him, apparently, it still does.
"I've never stopped believing, and I believe it in my heart," Salazar said. "I feel confident that I deserve to be in the big leagues, and I'm eager for an opportunity to prove that."
So eager, he added, that he rejected two more lucrative offers than the one offered by the Pirates because he saw a chance.
About that ...
"I know what the situation is, but I'm going to go out here and work my hardest."
Huntington would not rule that out, pointing to Salazar's history that includes a .281 career average in the minors.
"He's going to have chances to show us what he can do, and maybe he becomes an option if one of our other guys struggles or gets hurt," Huntington said. "He might not be with us April 6, as was our initial thought, but it could happen."
Meanwhile, it certainly sounds as if Monroe will make it right away.
For one, he has an escape clause in his contract that allows him to declare free agency if the Pirates do not add him to the roster by the final week of spring training, and he can be expected to exercise it.
For another ...
"I know they need a right-handed power bat, and I believe I'm that player," Monroe said. "I feel fortunate that I've had a chance to play everyday for years in Detroit and show myself and Major League Baseball what I can do. I want to do that here, too."
Monroe , 32, has hit 20 or more home runs three times, all with the Tigers, but has been reduced to bench duty since 2007. The low point came last season with the Minnesota Twins, when he batted .211 and was released in early August.
"I think I can be of help in a lot of ways," Monroe said. "I've been on a Detroit team that lost 119 games in 2003, and I've gone to the World Series with the same team three years later. There's a lot of good, young talent here. I like this group."
Monroe is 4 for 7 with a home run and three RBIs in Grapefruit League play, including two doubles in the Pirates' 2-1 edging of the Twins yesterday. Salazar is 3 for 9 with three RBIs, plus a home run in the exhibition Tuesday vs. the Netherlands .
First Published March 5, 2009 12:00 am