Notes: Pirates trim five from roster

Notes: Pirates trim five from spring roster

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pittsburgh Pirates trimmed their active roster to 30 on Wednesday by sending out five players, including top prospect Jose Bautista.

Bautista and catcher Ronny Paulino were optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. Pitchers Scott Strickland and Britt Reames and utility player Mike Edwards were reassigned to Minor League camp.

Bautista, 25, was one of the Bucs' most productive players this spring. He batted .345 with four home runs and nine RBIs in 24 games while seeing action in the field at third base, second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions.

"He had an outstanding spring," said Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield. "It's one of those good news, bad news things. The bad news is you obviously hate to send a guy to the Minor Leagues, because he's performed well. The good news is I'm sure he'll be back soon.

"He's a guy who has made improvements, he's matured. He certainly gives you the look that he's Major League ready."

Bautista was in contention for Pittsburgh's final reserve spot off the bench. However, the Pirates ultimately decided that Bautista, who spent most of last season at Double-A Altoona after losing a year of development while riding the bench in the big leagues in 2004 as a Rule 5 Draft selection, would benefit more by playing third base every day in the Minor Leagues than he would as a reserve in the big leagues.

"We need to try to continue to get him at-bats," said Littlefield. "Because of his path the last couple of years, he hasn't had the normal number of at-bats that your prospects have. I think it's important that we get him a lot of playing time at third base. ... We want to exhaust the opportunity for him to play third base, because we are looking at our future."

Although Bautista, with pillow in hand, was ready to board the team bus for the road trip to Ft. Myers on Wednesday morning, he said he wasn't surprised by the demotion.

"I would rather be up here [in the big leagues], but I do understand the picture," said Bautista. "I had a clue when they went out and signed [Joe] Randa this year. It's not a big shock to me. I know I performed well in the spring, but I didn't really think that was going to matter coming in, either.

"Like [Littlefield] said, I just have to go down, get some more at-bats, continue to improve on the things I need to keep working on and hopefully I'll get the callup soon when the spot's open."

Final audition: Even with the moves Wednesday morning, the Pirates have several decisions to make before whittling the roster down to 25 for Opening Day.

The competition for the second spot in the starting rotation should become clearer Thursday when right-handers Brandon Duckworth and Victor Santos make their final appearances of the spring in an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins. However, Littlefield said that their performances Thursday would not be the determining factor in deciding who gets the job.

"I wouldn't evaluate it that way," said Littlefield. "It just gives us more information and another outing to look at the guys.

"They obviously have played a long time in Minor League and Major League baseball. Those things count, as well. I don't want anybody to think that one four-inning outing in Spring Training ... is going to determine whether you make it or not. There are many factors that go into it, part of which includes the makeup of the 12-man staff that we have and how those other pieces fit."

Santos, 29, has a career record of 17-33 with a 5.00 ERA in 125 big-leagues games, including 65 starts. Duckworth, 30, is 16-21 lifetime with a 5.34 ERA in 91 career Major League appearances, including 66 starts.

Even if Santos does not earn a job as a starter, he could still make the team as a long reliever. Santos was selected from Kansas City in the Rule 5 Draft in December, and the Pirates would be obligated to offer him back to the Royals if he is not placed on the 25-man roster.

As of Wednesday morning, the Pirates had not disclosed which of the two right-handers would start the game Thursday against the Twins.

Marte optimistic about return: The availability of left-handed reliever Damaso Marte for the start of the regular season will also play a role in the team's decision-making in the coming days.

Marte, who returned early from the World Baseball Classic because of a sore left shoulder, developed stiffness on the right side of his neck Tuesday after taking batting practice. He was scratched from his scheduled Grapefruit League debut later that day.

"It feels much better today," Marte said Wednesday. "It locked up [during batting practice]. Maybe I didn't sleep good [Monday night]."

According to Littlefield, no decision has yet been made on whether Marte will have to begin the season on the disabled list.

"We have to consider that he hasn't pitched much up to this point, and he's had some bumps and bruises," said Littlefield. "But we haven't made any determination."

Despite the setbacks, Marte is optimistic that he'll be able to open the season with the club.

"I have to pitch two or three times here. But we have three more games. I think I can pitch in two or three games," he said.

If Marte is unavailable, non-roster invitee C.J. Nitkowski could earn a spot on the Opening Day roster as the third left-hander in the bullpen, along with John Grabow and closer Mike Gonzalez. Nitkowski pitched in four of the previous five games before Wednesday.

Bucs bits: Littlefield said Wednesday that Chris Duffy is still in line to be the Opening Day starter in center field, despite the emergence of Nate McLouth this spring. "Right now, Chris Duffy is the starting center fielder and we're going to go in that direction," said Littlefield. "I don't think either guy has a solid position on a job. Both of them have got to continue to work hard to establish themselves as big leaguers. Neither one is an established big leaguer, but we have very high hopes for both of them." ... Edwards was left with a black eye after an indoor batting practice session Tuesday. A ball Edwards hit in the McKechnie Field batting cage bounced up and hit him in the face. He is not expected to miss any action. ... Right-handers Kip Wells, Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten will begin the season on the disabled list, although it has not yet been decided if all three will be placed on the 60-day DL.

On deck: Duckworth and Santos will make their final bids for the starting rotation Thursday when the Pirates host the Twins at McKechnie Field. 2004 American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana is scheduled to start for Minnesota.

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.