With Pirates' Spring Training in full swing, I had a chance to sit down with GM Neal Huntington for a conversation on a number of topics including the expectations and plans for 3B Pedro Alvarez (hitting just .167 in camp so far), as well as the hot spring of the team's top OF prospect Starling Marte (a .692 batting average on 9 of 13 hitting including 2 HR):

On Pedro Alvarez and how long the leash is this season

"Pedro's done what he needed to do this offseason physically. He's in much better shape than he's been really any of the Spring Trainings he's been with us. He's strong. He's more athletic. We're seeing the same guy that we saw in 2009 that we got so excited about in terms of where he was, where he had a chance to be in terms of the swing, in terms of how the ball is coming off the bat. Pedro's done really everything he can do at this point in time. Translating into games a little bit inconsistently at times, still hook-pull, whereas last couple games he's driven balls to left-center field, he hit a ball to the warning track in left field here yesterday, took the left fielder to the fence in the 'B' game yesterday. So those are really good signs. There is no preconceived notion. It's not 50 plate appearances, 150, 250, we don't really have a preconceived notion of when we'll take a deep breath and say 'man, he's got it figured out.' He's a talented player, he wants it, he cares, he's driven to be great. And he's got a chance to make a big impact on us. If he doesn't, Casey McGehee is here and we've got some other internal options that we've protected ourselves with. But we're looking for Pedro to have a real good bounce back season and be a big piece for us."

On Casey McGehee

"We brought Casey in because he's a very solid major league player. His 2009 and 2010 seasons were very good. Obviously, he struggled last year otherwise he wouldn't have been available if he had done what he did in '09 and '10 Milwaukee wouldn't have made the move that they did. They wouldn't have had to make the move. Obviously they decided to go in a different direction, they wanted [Jose] Veras and we though that was a solid acquisition cost for us to get a guy like Casey Mcgehee that brings tremendous depth for us at third and at first [base]. If he bounces back, like we expect he's going to have some level of bounce back, he's going to be a very valuable piece for us. Again, the ability to go play third or first right now provides us with depth behind Pedro at third base, provides us with a legitimate option at first base, and again if he bounces back to '09, '10 levels he's going to be a very productive player for us."

"As we looked at Casey our scouts still saw the bat speed, they still saw the guy who could work the count and grind out an at-bat. Objectively and subjectively there were some reasons why he had the bad year, some correctable and some that will naturally correct themselves. We're looking for Casey to have a very solid bounce back year, a lot like Nate [McLouth]. Our guys still saw the physical skills in Nate, just injuries took away a lot of the good that we saw here with Nate in '08 and '09. He battled [injuries] down there (in Atlanta) and battled expectations. There's a number of factors that we believe are going to work in his favor and have a much better year for us this year."

On Starling Marte and evaluating Spring Training stats

"Without question, the most difficult time to evaluate players is Spring Training. September is not far behind it. You've got to really take a look at who they're doing what they're doing against, and what situations. Is it against Major League pitching? Is it against guys getting ready for the season or guys competing to make a club? What types of pitches is the hitter hitting? To what location? Is it going to translate in the season? We love Starling Marte. He's not going to make our club out of Spring Training. Can he go to AAA and continue to carry this forward, that's the challenge. We've seen a ton of guys that have been Babe Ruth in Spring Training where the season starts and maybe a club makes an emotional decision on him, and they return to their norm. Starling has a pretty good 'norm' for him to return to, but he's got a lot of things to work on. We're very excited about where he is and what he's doing this spring and he's showing glimpses of the player he can be in the future. Again, logical, rational decisions and remind ourselves that we are in Spring Training and there are a lot of pitchers getting ready, there's a lot of fastballs in the middle of the plate. We're talking an extremely small sample size. We're excited about the future, but we've got be realistic about what we see."

On past mistakes as a GM calling a player up too soon

"The best teacher is experience. Yes, I've been a part of an organization that rushed a prospect before he was ready, for the wrong reasons. He hit .380 in Spring Training and we got giddy. And he wasn't ready, he was on fastballs and fastball counts to the pull side. No breaking balls. Against AA and AAA pitching, and it wasn't against legitimate Major League competition. It's tough to remind yourself that these are Spring Training evaluations. And we understand the fans clamor for a guy who has a great spring. We had a classic example here of a veteran guy that had a great spring a couple years ago in Craig Monroe. Had seven home-runs in the spring and tore it up. But again, it was fastballs in fastball counts and against lesser competition but Craig had a good spring, made the club, and then obviously didn't carry through in season. We've got a guy in camp right Jake Fox I think led the league in home-runs a year ago. And he can hit a fastball. You see a lot of those in Spring Training and once guys transition from getting ready to their season to focused on getting the hitters out, the numbers tend to come back to Earth. And that's not to take anything away from Starling, we are so pleased with where he is and what he's going to be able to do in the future. We just can't get overly caught up in a fifteen at-bat sample size."

On his crowded outfield and getting everyone playing time

"That's the challenge of Spring Training is you recruit players to come in as free agents, Major League of Minor League free agents, you've got guys internally that you're trying to take a look at, and you run out of real estate sometimes. You run out of innings to give guys legitimate competition. We've got a great competition going on for our bullpen right now. You've got to get your starters stretched out as they go from three to five to seven innings incrementally, three, four, five, six, seven, there's fewer innings for your bullpen guys. You've got to make sure you give those guys competition where you get your young players like the Martes ready for their own season, and you don't do that by getting an at-bat or two as the starters begin to play longer in to games. But as we look forward, we've talked from day one we want a deep and talented farm system for one of two reasons: one to help Pittsburgh directly because they're either everyday players or role players, extra players off the bench, a mid-leverage guy; but the other part of it is you can trade, you can use them for trade chips, you can fill in a hole on your Major League team because you trade a prospect or two for a legitimate Major League player and we're getting closer to the time, we've added some guys here and there because we've given up some Minor League players. The Derrick Lee, the Ryan Ludwick, the A.J. Burnetts of the world, McGehee for Veras, because we had options in the bullpen [and] we felt like we had depth. We've got some good arms in the minor league, we've got some good outfielders in the minor leagues, and those are the two pieces that brought A.J. Burnett back."

On Neil Huntington's schedule this time of year:

"First two to three weeks of Spring Training it's almost a true inventory of what you have. I love to watch our young players in Minor League camp, to see our young players in Major League camp. So it's actually probably one of the quieter times. Things are starting to heat up again, next week or so is when trade conversations will start, guys are out of options, extra players for whatever reason somebody stepped forward for another team and now player 'X' becomes available so the conversations start up. Just different cycles. There is no offseason. I count my blessings everyday, I'm in baseball and to steal a Marge Schott, I get to watch games for a living. We do a lot more than that, but yeah it's an incredible opportunity and we've got some great people here. We believe we've done some very very good things over the last four years that are beginning to materialize and show themselves at the most important level which is the Major Leagues and then in terms of quality baseball, championship execution, and turning into wins."

His overall thoughts on Pirates Spring Training so far

"Obviously the A.J. [Burnett] injury puts a damper on things but to get him back yesterday is a shot in the arm. He's working hard to get back as quickly and as sensibly as he can. Overall, I've seen some really good things. Some of the pitchers have done a nice job, and the hitters have really swung the bat well. It's been fun to see some of our young players take a step up and watch our guys get ready for the season."

Reflecting on the A.J. Burnett trade

"We monitored it during the offseason. If we didn't add him we were ready to go with the rotation that we had in place and the options that we had internally. But as we said the day that we made it we felt like that trade made us better. Felt like the acquisition cost was good, the risk was reasonable and a chance to add a guy that has really good stuff to our rotation. The guys has a been a lot of places that we want to go and [will] bring some good things on and off the field for us."

"It was one of those situations that three weeks ago or I guess now a month ago we didn't have him and we felt good about where we were. But to be able to add the depth, a veteran of his talent and experience was a good addition to us and the sooner we get him back the better. But we'll be fine until then with our internal options barring any other injuries which you cross your fingers and knock on a lot of wood in Spring Training."

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