DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There's no denying the impact the Pirates' defensive shifts and analytically-based positioning had on their ability to prevent runs in 2013. Pittsburgh has bought into the numbers and statistics and, just as important, the results.
Pair that with a little additional athleticism from the Bucs' corner infielders, and the Pirates could be even better defensively in 2014.
First baseman Gaby Sanchez and third baseman Pedro Alvarez both flashed some impressive range and leather in Friday's 4-2 loss to Toronto at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Sanchez moved to his right, nabbed a tough grounder off the bat of speedy Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose and flipped the ball to Gerrit Cole at first base for the first out of the game.
Alvarez looked just as sharp when Gose dropped a bunt to begin the third inning, charging in on the ball and zipping it to Sanchez at first base for the out.
Both plays impressed Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
"We're continuing to stretch these guys out laterally, forward movement, all of it. They both worked very hard on their agility throughout the offseason, as we encouraged all our infielders to do," Hurdle said. "I think there's always a little room for improvement. [Neil] Walker's another guy that worked on it. Jordy [Mercer] worked on it. [Clint] Barmes made a nice play up the middle, again, to his left.
"The guys in the corner proved themselves to be more than capable defenders."
That's not take anything away from what both players have done defensively to this point in their careers, of course. In fact, Hurdle pointed out that Alvarez had nearly 100 more total chances in 2013 (458) than in '12 (364). But if Alvarez and Sanchez continue to improve in that regard, and the technology behind the shifts keeps getting better, then last year's defensive makeover was just the beginning for the Pirates.
"All that goes into the package, we understand the importance of defense, especially when we add our positioning to it," Hurdle said. "So the more athletic they can be, the better."
Bucs waste no time moving Barmes around infield
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Clint Barmes started at shortstop, batting second, in Friday's 4-2 loss to the Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. He's slated to start at second base, batting ninth, in Saturday's game against the Rays at McKechnie Field.
With Jordy Mercer expected to be the club's everyday shortstop, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said to expect to see Barmes playing a little bit of everything. He wasn't kidding, either. Barmes began working out at third base on Saturday and he'll continue bouncing around the infield throughout Spring Training.
"He's going to move around. He's going to play second, third. You can read into it whatever you want," Hurdle said. "We're going to move him around that utility/middle position. We're going to move him around and get him more exposure at other places."
Barmes, who turns 35 next week, was in essence exclusively a shortstop each of the last three seasons, but said recently that he was "excited for the chance to move all over." As Hurdle pointed out, Barmes played plenty of second base and moved around the diamond during his years in Colorado. He hasn't seen nearly as much time at third base, however.
To help prepare for that part of his new job, Barmes has been getting in more work at third base before games and will see some game action at third base as well, according to Hurdle.
• Right fielder Travis Snider hasn't played in a game yet this spring and wasn't listed in Saturday's starting lineup against the Rays. Hurdle said Snider, coming off offseason surgery to heal a serious toe injury, is healthy and the Pirates plan to work him in at designated hitter, possibly Sunday against the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla.
"We're just working him back," Hurdle said. "Figured we'd give it some time to get his feet underneath him."
• Right-hander Phil Irwin didn't pitch, as scheduled, after Cole and Jameson Taillon in Friday's 4-2 loss to the Blue Jays. Hurdle acknowledged after the game that Irwin was held out, but wasn't sure why.
• Overall, Hurdle was pleased with the Pirates' pitching Friday afternoon. Left-hander Andy Oliver walked three batters and allowed a run in the fifth inning, but those were the Bucs' only three walks on the day.
"As a group, we commanded the zone pretty well. The inning got away from Andy a little bit," Hurdle said. "It goes back to [Friday being their] first outing. I don't overcook the first outing. They need to get out there. They need to reacquaint themselves with adrenaline, mound rhythm, all that."
• Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced on Friday that the seventh annual Breakthrough Series will expand in 2014 to showcase approximately 200 players in four locations, one of which is Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. This year's Breakthrough Series, run by the MLB Scouting Bureau, will be held from July 19-28 and expose a diverse group of top high school players to professional scouts and college recruiters.