McLouth nabs center-field job

McLouth nabs center-field job

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Maybe Nyjer Morgan -- sitting on a wooden bench in front of his stall in the Pirate City clubhouse -- said it best.

"All systems roll!" he exclaimed, with his trademark grin in place.

After Tuesday's 7-3 win over the Twins, bench coach Gary Varsho ushered both Nate McLouth and Morgan, separately, into Pirates manager John Russell's office. They both came out knowing that they would be with the team on Monday in the Pirates' season opener in Atlanta.

And McLouth emerged having been told that he would be the team's Opening Day center fielder.

"A lot of people are handed positions, and rightfully so," said McLouth, minutes after learning the news. "But when you go out and compete and win something, especially something as big as the starting center-field job, it's definitely gratifying."

Both McLouth and Morgan came in to spring camp knowing that they would be competing directly against each another for the starting center-field job. They were both products of the Pirates' farm system, knew each other well and admired the skills in one another that they didn't have.

Defensively, they were both sound all spring. McLouth, though, jumped out to an early lead in the battle for the starting spot by getting off to a solid start offensively and never slowing down.

Following Tuesday's game, McLouth's .311 average was significantly higher than the .228 mark for Morgan. McLouth also showed some pop in his bat (nine extra-base hits) that Morgan doesn't have. Ultimately, that made a difference in the decision to give the nod to McLouth.

"We said from Day 1 that we have two legitimate center fielders," Russell said. "Looking at it, Nate swung the bat extremely well. He gives us some dimension with some power."

McLouth even suggested that maybe the competition made him raise his game one notch higher this spring.

"It differs, because a lot of people can kind of come into Spring Training and use it as a tuneup for the season," McLouth said. "But speaking for myself, I had to come out every day and do my best and compete every day."

For McLouth, earning the starting job should begin to shed the label many had branded him with. Despite having above-average statistics in his climb through the Minors, he was often told that he wasn't quite up to the level of being an everyday Major League outfielder.

He spent years hearing praise about his knowledge of the game and about his ability to execute the fundamentals, only to be deemed a fourth outfielder by many.

However, McLouth took advantage when Chris Duffy went down in the middle of last season with an injury and did a capable job at the plate and a more-than-adequate job in the field. The outfielder hit .258 last season with 13 homers and 22 stolen bases in 23 attempts.

Still, there were doubts coming into Spring Training as to whether McLouth could carry the job every day moving forward.

"I think players get labeled, whether right or wrong," said McLouth, a 25th-round pick in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft. "People say, 'This is a power hitter, this guy's not.' Pitchers, the same way. Those labels are hard to break sometimes. They kind of follow you around. So to be in the position that I'm in is definitely satisfying."

For Morgan, any disappointment that he wouldn't be the starting center fielder was masked by the excitement of knowing that he would not be starting the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. So excited was Morgan that he had a hard time putting his feelings into words. And remember, this isn't a guy who is exactly taciturn.

"I couldn't really tell you, because this is something that never [has] really happened," said the 27-year-old Morgan. "I'm extremely happy. I don't have any words right now -- for the first time."

Morgan had his first taste of the Majors last year as a September callup, and he quickly made a name for himself with his flashy defense and game-changing speed. He showcased both of those talents during this spring as well, though his slow start hurt his chances of landing the everyday job.

He'll be thrust into a backup role that he is not used to, though Morgan is still expected to see adequate playing time.

General manager Neal Huntington had reiterated for some time now that the team wouldn't keep Morgan on the Major League club if he wouldn't get a sufficient number of at-bats. And the fact that both Morgan and McLouth have the versatility to move around to the corner outfield spots, too, will ensure Morgan isn't used exclusively off the bench.

"We wouldn't have kept Nyjer if he wasn't going to get an opportunity to play," Russell said. "There will be situations where we can get them both out there. That's why we kept them both."

The decision to keep both Morgan and McLouth on the team was preceded by the team's decision to option outfielder Kevin Thompson to Triple-A prior to the game. Thompson would have been considered as a possible extra outfielder for the Pirates if the club had decided to send Morgan back down to Indianapolis.

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