Weekly Pirates Report
*Analysis, Rumblings & Musings*
By John Perrotto
A few years ago, Bill Mazeroski was ready to walk away from his job as a special spring training instructor with the Pirates.
The Hall of Famer felt the players weren't interested in what he had to offer, which is the advice of a man who is in the Hall of Fame, is the only person to hit a walk-off home run in Game 7 of a World Series and won eight Gold Gloves during his 17-year career with the Pirates.
That all changed, though, during spring training in 2010 when the Pirates decided to convert then-third baseman Neil Walker into a super utility man.
Walker spent plenty of time with Mazeroski that spring working on the finer points of second base and appreciated the chance to work with a legend. Unlike many of the other the Pirates, Walker understood Mazeroski's place both in franchise lore and baseball history.
"He's the greatest defensive second baseman ever," Walker said. "There is no one better to learn from to play second base than Maz."
Walker has turned out to exceed the Pirates' expectations of him being a super utility man.
Overpaid and overweight Aki Iwamura was a bust at second base in 2010, opening the door for Walker to become the starting second baseman in late May. Nearly two years later, he has a hammerlock on the position.
In his second full season at the position, Walker is starting to make great progress with the glove. One scout who covered the Pirates extensively in spring training this year said Walker's defensive improvement was one of the biggest surprises of the Grapefruit League season.
"He's held his own there ever since they moved him to second but he really started looking a natural this spring," the scout said. "There is no more hesitancy in his actions. He's really smooth now."
Walker did not fare well in the advanced defensive metrics last season. Fangraphs.com's Ultimate Zone Rating ranked Walker 16th among the 17 major-league second basemen who qualified for the batting title, ahead of only the Atlanta Braves' Dan Uggla.
However, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has also been impressed by Walker's play so far this season.
"I see big improvements," Hurdle said. "All the work in spring training with Maz has helped a great deal. He's just showing more athletic ability. He's learning the position at the major league level, which is unheard of. Neil's positioning is better. He knows his pitchers and the hitters better. He's worked on his flexibility and losing his rigidity when turning the double play."
In other matters:
--Reliever Evan Meek was limited to just 20 innings last season because of shoulder problems. Though he didn't require surgery, it's easy to wonder if he is healthy as his fastball is averaging just 91.5 mph, three mph slower than when was an All-Star set-up man in 2010.
When asked about Meek's role on opening day, Hurdle admitted that "Evan is a wild card. We're going to have to see how it all plays out."
--Right-hander A.J. Burnett gave up eight runs, five earned, in 1 2/3 innings in his second rehab start with high Class A Bradenton on Wednesday night as he continues his recovery from a fractured orbital bone underneath his right eye.
However, a scout who was at the game said that the statistics were not indicative of how well Burnett pitched. "His stuff was good and his control was pretty good. He gave up a few hard-hit balls but he wasn't helped by his defense. There were a couple of plays that weren't made and that made his line in the box score look so bad."
--It is hard to believe now that right fielder Jose Tabata was considered a power-hitting prospect when the Pirates acquired him from the Yankees at the 2008 non-waiver trade deadline. He has all but abandoned the idea of trying to drive the ball and is content with getting singles.
While getting on base is paramount for a top-of-the-order hitter, it would help the Pirates' offense immensely if Tabata would at least try to hit the ball with authority again.
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball since 1988.