Inge set to emerge as key piece on Bucs' bench

Inge set to emerge as key piece on Bucs' bench

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Clint Hurdle may finally have his Jose Oquendo.

Someone capable of coming off the bench, and occasionally starting, at virtually any position on the field. Someone who is content and comfortable in that role, a veteran who wouldn't mope about a lack of playing time. Someone who would be an invaluable piece without restrictions in making double-switches.

Someone, in other words, who would enable Hurdle to manage.

Hurdle's guy is Brandon Inge, and the question of whether the 35-year-old is up to fulfilling one of the Pirates manager's biggest wants for 2013 will begin to be answered this weekend. Three-and-a-half weeks after agreeing to a Minor League deal with the Bucs, Inge is finishing up his rehabilitation from September surgery on his throwing shoulder and ready to shed the designated hitter yokes and take the field.

Inge is tentatively scheduled to start one of Sunday's split-squad games, either in Sarasota, Fla., against the Orioles or in Fort Myers against the Twins.

Inge feels good enough to throw. He doesn't feel good. Doesn't know if he ever will. Does know that it doesn't matter.

"There's still a little discomfort after workouts. It may always be there, but nothing I can't play through," the gamer said. "I can deal with a little thing here and there. What would I be saving myself for?"

There is something else about his upcoming unveiling that matters not to Inge.

"I don't care where it is, or what position," he said. "I'll play anywhere. I just don't like to sit."

Exactly the sort of attitude Hurdle wants on his bench, which a year ago included younger players -- most prominently Jordy Mercer, Chase d'Arnaud and Gorkys Hernandez. The kind of guys who couldn't be happy, or productive, playing a few innings a couple of times a week.

Even while his club was still in the thick of the postseason hunt, Hurdle felt limited by his bench options and talked wistfully of a future solution.

"I saw it with St. Louis," said Hurdle, who was winding down his career with the 1986 Cardinals as Oquendo began creating a new mold for utilitymen. "Oquendo broke into a super utility-type player. It's not easy to do, by any means. To come in and be sharp and focused without having played a lot. Not a whole bunch of players have been able to do it. To be able to work at three positions one day, then knock down the other three the next day."

Hurdle said that on Aug. 8. Now check out what he was saying on March 8:

"Inge plays into [our bench] a lot," the manager said. "He can play at third, go over to second, play a bit at first, and has actually spent some time in the outfield. So we've kind of looked at, talked about, what we want to do when we get him out there. And he's getting closer every day.

"Inge brings some presence. He brings some experience. To have a guy on the bench who's capable is a very big help. And that utility corner guy is different from the utility middle-infield guy."

That was another shortcoming of 2012, after Casey McGehee moved on to the Yankees in a Trade Deadline swap. Josh Harrison filled in at every infield spot, including third, but the other reserves (d'Arnaud and Mercer) were suited to only play around the second-base bag.

The Bucs thereby are exploring other options. Gaby Sanchez has been getting increasing playing time at third base, a position he had played liberally in the Minors (148 out of a total of 482 games) but never in the big leagues.

"It all depends," Hurdle said of the eventual composition of his bench, with so many moving pieces still in play. "On what Gaby is able to do at third, on whether Inge's arm is good to go. That would give you different options with what you can do with your outfielders.

"It's too early. We don't need to paint ourselves into any corners. We've got a lot of different options. [Travis] Snider is in right? [Jose] Tabata and [Alex] Presley are getting after it this spring. If it works out that [Garrett] Jones goes back to the outfield ... we're looking at multiple options. So let's let them play."

One of those options is ready to start playing. If Inge indicates he can continue playing, he could play a very important role. In this era of 12-man pitching staffs, bench spots are at a premium. Someone capable of filling in at a multitude of positions dramatically stretches the 25-man roster.

Inge won't be Oquendo, who helped out the 1986-95 Cardinals at every position, and extensively everywhere but at pitcher and catcher, where he surfaced only in extreme emergencies.

Hurdle will gladly take a half-Oquendo.

"Let's let it work itself out. I'm not gonna be saying this on the 27th of March," Hurdle said, "but it's the eighth of March."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.