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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Andy still on the shelf

Andy Phillips' stiff back is still keeping him from playing. Nevertheless, the Pirates have signalled that he's a frontrunner for the last roster spot on the team.

Pirates spring training: Phillips has edge on Cruz

Duel for Pirates' super-utility role favors former Yankees bench man

BRADENTON, Fla. -- One has rubbed elbows with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the rest of the New York Yankees for years.

The other was blown away to be playing meaningless September ball with the Pirates.

Andy Phillips, the 32-year-old veteran, and Luis Cruz, the 24-year-old bouncing baby of the clubhouse, are the two players vying for one job as the Pirates' utilityman, predominantly for the infield but with the capability of some corner outfield if needed. They are different as can be.

Or not.

"I was there once, where Luis is," Phillips said.

Rewind a decade, as Phillips was rising through the Yankees' system, topping .300 at nearly every level before getting his chance with five games in 2004.

As with so many youngsters in New York, breaking into a lineup where eight-figure salaries are the norm was not easy. Five at-bats the first year, 40 the next and, finally, a healthy 246 and 185 the next two, in which he batted .240 and .292.

"Opportunity is always an issue with the Yankees," Phillips said. "Just look at who's on the field."

It might be easy, then, to blame Phillips' backward-step 2008 -- a combined .231 in 56 games split between the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets -- on having been stunted at a key point in his career. But Phillips points instead to a self-inflicted wound.

"My hands kept going higher in my batting stance, and I had no idea."

Not until Don Long, the Pirates' hitting coach, showed Phillips on video this offseason. This spring, coincidence or not, he is batting .467 with a team-high seven RBIs, a tear that includes six hits in the eight at-bats before his back stiffened a few days ago. He could return this weekend.

"It's made so much difference," Phillips said. "And it's just part of why I've really enjoyed being in this camp. The way they've run things here, the efficiency, the instruction, is as good as any I've seen. On top of that, I really think you can see some of the pieces in place toward winning."

Phillips, in all likelihood, will be one of those pieces, even though he is in camp on a minor league contract with no spring escape clause. For one, management has shown a tendency toward using veterans on the bench. For another, he has shown he can play an efficient if unspectacular first base, second base and third, and he was about to play right field before the back flared.

Cruz's lone advantages are that he already is on the 40-man roster and that he can play all of Phillips' positions, plus the two most vital in shortstop and center field.

He also impressed management with his swift ascent to Pittsburgh last summer, going from Class AA Altoona to Class AAA Indianapolis in late July, then batting .325 with the Indians to earn a 22-game September recall with the Pirates and bat .224.

"It was the one of the best times of my life, my dream come true," Cruz said with the customary wide smile. "All those players I got to see on TV ... I'm out there playing against Manny Ramirez!"

That exuberance often comes with youth, and inexperience could be a reason why Cruz gets optioned back to Indianapolis. In addition to having made just a cameo stop at the Class AAA level, he still needs refinement at certain positions, notably first base.

"I don't know about my chance," Cruz said. "We have guys here who have more experience, like Andy. But I think I'm doing a good job so far. And I'm very, very happy to be here."

This spring, Cruz is batting .176 with an RBI.


posted by BubbaFan, 9:58 PM


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