Clement looks set at first for Bucs

Clement looks set at first for Bucs

BRADENTON, Fla. -- One of the biggest questions coming into Spring Training was whether or not Jeff Clement could make enough strides defensively to solidify a spot as the Pirates' Opening Day first baseman.

With the season opener now only nine days away, there still hasn't been any official "you've-got-the-job" message passed along to Clement. However, it seems as if management continues to lean in that direction.

"He's definitely done some things that we like," general manager Neal Huntington said when asked if Clement would be the Pirates' first baseman on April 5. "We still have some work to do. We still have some time to make the evaluation. But on the whole, Jeff has done a very nice job this spring and could very well be."

Manager John Russell's assessment of the situation sounded much the same.

"He's playing well," Russell said. "He's come a long way. He works really hard. He's attentive on the field. The swing is starting to come. He's put himself in a very good position. He's done what we've asked of him. We'll see how the next few days go. As he sits today, he's in a good position. We'll see how it turns out."

Though the Pirates have until 3 p.m. ET next Sunday to set the club's 25-man roster, Clement will likely know his fate by the time the team leaves for Philadelphia on Thursday. The Pirates have two exhibition games scheduled there to close out their Spring Training schedule.

Clement's transition from catcher to first base has been intensely scrutinized all spring. He spent the early days of camp taking groundballs at the position up to three different times a day. Even as the club's work moved from Pirate City to McKechnie Field the first week in March, Clement remained infield coach Carlos Garcia's early morning pupil.

Clement played just 28 games at first last season (all in the Minors), and there were still all sorts of questions about his abilities there coming into the spring. Externally, the reviews have been mixed, and there have been times when Clement has not looked all that smooth. Reacting to balls off the bat continue to be the biggest challenge for him.

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He's had some strong defensive performances, too, though, including one on Friday in which he recorded nine putouts in six innings, including a handful that he received in the dirt.

"It's definitely getting better," Clement said. "I'm getting more comfortable. It's just the little things -- like I feel comfortable getting to the bag on time and starting a little further off. It's getting more and more comfortable every day that I play. You've got to believe in yourself, and I'm definitely becoming more and more confident every day that I'm over there."

The belief was always that the questions about Clement's readiness for the big leagues centered around his defensive abilities and not his offensive talent, even though Clement has only a .237 batting average in 219 career Major League at-bats.

Despite less-than-desirable results at the plate early, Clement has been swinging a hotter bat as of late, too. Management hardly seemed worried when he started 2-for-15, noting that his approach at the plate had been solid.

Over the past week, the hits have finally been falling. Clement, who was in the starting lineup again on Saturday, entered the day with five hits in his previous 11 at-bats. He has also drawn a team-high six walks this spring.

"I've been able to see quite a few pitches every at-bat," he said. "I'm not swinging at a lot of balls, which is good. Usually when I don't swing the bat well, it's because I'm swinging at a pitch that I shouldn't. This spring, the numbers haven't been there even though my approach has been good. The last week has been far better than it had been in the first few. It's good to have a better feel for things right now."

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