Hurdle looking for improvement from within

Hurdle looking for improvement from within

DALLAS -- If for no other reason than familiarity, the Winter Meetings hot seat seemed a bit cozier for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle this time around.

A year after fielding questions about a club he had never managed and players he had never met, Hurdle spent Tuesday looking back on 2011 and ahead toward 2012 with an understanding of where this franchise is and where its next steps must be. Engaging in a 30-minute session with reporters on the second day of the Winter Meetings, Hurdle spoke about a variety of topics, beginning with himself.

"I have a much better understanding of our organizational depth," Hurdle said. "I have a much better understanding of the people that I'm working with [from] the relationships that have been established in one year, and there's room for more growth."

A 90-loss season makes that last point an obvious one. Hurdle shied away from identifying specific holes he still sees in the roster, though he did note that the club is still looking for ways to improve offensively and to add a veteran starter.

Hurdle, as general manager Neal Huntington did one day earlier, also stressed the need for most of the improvement to come from within. That would seem to be especially necessary if the Pirates' biggest offseason additions remain catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes. Neither brings an especially impactful bat to the lineup.

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"Well, the one way we're going to upgrade efficiently is for all the players we've got in house to be a little better," Hurdle said. "We have guys that have room to improve and need to improve. I do think there's going to be a better understanding individually of what we need to do to be better on offense and make those commitments in Spring Training and carry them through the season."

Hurdle identified the bullpen as the area of greatest Major League-ready depth in the organization, and that assessment is hardly surprising given how many young arms contributed in relief during 2011. Hurdle spoke specifically about Tony Watson, Daniel Moskos, Chris Leroux and Jared Hughes as promising pieces.

And those are just a handful of the relievers trying to establish themselves.

Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Jose Veras and Jason Grilli are among the other more established relievers the Pirates can retain, depending on the club's arbitration offers.

"One of the things that you're looking for is tangible signs of getting better as an organization," Hurdle said. "We've got much tougher decisions to make this winter than we had last year, and there's more volume of personnel and depth than we're able to talk about so far than we were able to talk about last year. We feel very good."

Here is a rundown of some of the other topics Hurdle addressed during his scheduled media session:

• Hurdle noted that he would be comfortable beginning the season with an all-righty rotation if the club is unable to find better left-handed options. Currently, the only left-handed candidate already in the organization is Jeff Locke.

"The time [to make an addition] is not over," he said. "[The front office is] still out there making calls and seeing potential fits. If it's all right-handed, it's all right-handed. I've been on some teams with all right-handed guys who are really good. That kind of just takes care of that."

• Hurdle acknowledged that he has been in contact with free-agent first baseman Derrek Lee this winter via text message. Their conversations, however, have not been baseball related. Lee has until midnight on Wednesday to decide whether to accept the Pirates' arbitration offer.

• Asked if Andrew McCutchen would return to the No. 3 spot in the lineup next season, Hurdle remained non-committal. McCutchen hit third in 82 of the 155 games he started in 2011. He seemed to be a natural fit there, too, when both Jose Tabata and Alex Presley were also in the lineup.

"I think we'll see how the winter plays out and see if there's any addition and work with the personnel we have to work with," Hurdle said. "But at the end of the day, for me, it doesn't matter if he's first, second, third, fourth. It doesn't matter where he is, I want him to run."

McCutchen stole 23 bases in 33 attempts last season after swiping 33 in 2010.

• Hurdle noted that Josh Harrison will get extended work at shortstop during Spring Training after being reintroduced to the position during a short October stint in instructional league. If Harrison can show that he is serviceable at short, he will increase his chances of making the club as a utility infielder.

• Catcher Michael McKenry has already met with Hurdle twice this offseason to work on hitting. The two worked together in Florida for five days in October and again in Pittsburgh for a five-day period. McKenry will return to Pittsburgh next week for another week-long hitting session.

McKenry will enter Spring Training competing with Jason Jaramillo to win the job as Barajas' backup.

"We'll spend an hour, hour and a half together a day, try to fine-tune some things, get him in a better position to hit," Hurdle said. "He has been very receptive. [His approach] looks different now, a little bit different. Not something you're going to go, 'Wow, what did he do?' But we're just trying to get him in a more comfortable position."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.