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Pirates Right fielder unaware job still up for grabs

Monday, March 18, 2002

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Two weeks before the season opener, Manager Lloyd McClendon and General Manager Dave Littlefield still are unsure about the opening-day starter in right field.

"I don't know yet," Littlefield said yesterday. "It's not the enviable position to be in with two weeks left, but it's the reality."

Derek Bell
"I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job."
(Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

The answer rests on a number of variables, not the least of which is that left-hander Al Leiter will be starting for the Mets, which favors a right-handed hitter. Derek Bell thinks the job is his. Armando Rios knows he's in a fight and needs to prove his left knee is healthy. The run-challenged Pirates want to see more of Craig Wilson, so right field might be his best chance to play. And Rob Mackowiak keeps hustling and hitting.

Bell hit .173 in an injury-plagued year last year after hitting .186 with the Mets the final half of the 2000 season. Although he says he wants to stay positive and doesn't want any controversy, he thinks the job is his even though he's hitting .125 this spring.

"Nobody told me I was in competition," said Bell, who said in January minicamp that he would shut up and do his job to prove something to himself and Pirates fans. "If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will.

"Ask Littlefield and ask Mac if I'm in competition. If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.' Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991," Bell said. "If I don't [start], then I guess I'll be out of here."

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Littlefield gave this assessment of Bell's status:

"Derek Bell is certainly competing for playing time out there. At this point, he hasn't done a lot to show he deserves a lot of playing time. He just hasn't performed. Last year, he was injured. He looks healthy. We just have to see more production."

When told of Bell's comments, Littlefield said he was not surprised and added: "He's been out here a long time. You have to do stuff on the field. He knows we lost 100 games and we're looking for more productive people out of a lot of different spots."

As for the other candidates, Littlefield said a lot depends on the health of Rios, who had knee surgery after he was acquired at the trading deadline last year.

"We're not really sure where Rios is at right now. He's been playing better. We just want to make sure he's healthy. It's a six-month season. If he's not ready to go opening day, it's something we just have to keep an eye on. Craig Wilson is a guy we need to see more from to see what we really have there. We're looking for guys to give us some offense. We have to see what he's got. Mackowiak has swung the bat great. He certainly has opened our eyes. He looks like he should be out there somewhere. I don't know where."

While Bell did not make the trip yesterday, Rios started against the Indians and played seven innings, his longest stint in the field this spring. He hopes to get some nine-inning appearances under his belt in the next two weeks to prove his knee and leg are sound.

"It's like everything else. Whoever is doing the job is going to play. It's not my decision. Our job is to put pressure on Mac to have to decide. You have to come out and prove yourself every year," Rios said.

"In my eyes, I think I'm ready. What I want to show is my timing is there and my knee's ready to run the bases and catch some balls in the gaps. They know I can play. They know I can hit. Until I do it again, I can say anything I want. The thing is, I have to show them I can do it day in and day out."

Rios had a hit in three at-bats and has four hits in his past 11 plate appearances (.364). He started the spring hitless in his first 14 at-bats and is hitting .160.

"He looks better every day," McClendon said.

After limping noticeably early in camp, Rios has built up his leg muscle and endurance to get some playing time. But he's still struggling to get up to full speed coming out of the batter's box.

Shortstop Jack Wilson scoops up a grounder but can't throw out the Indians' Omar Vizquel yesterday. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"Right now, I feel like I'm building a little more every day," Rios said. "My swings are better. I feel confident, finally. I'm finally having fun. The last three or four days have been fun to be out here. My next step is to steal a base. Now it's time for the payoff. It's time to play baseball."

With 12 Grapefruit League games left, it's pure speculation to say who will be in right field to open the season. But if Rios is still hurting and opens the season on the disabled list, and if Bell isn't producing, it is conceivable that Wilson could be the starter.

"Would I like to be? Sure. I don't think there's anyone who wouldn't want to. But you'll have to ask Mac," said Wilson, who broke in as an outfielder in the Blue Jays organization but has also caught and played first base.

"I really don't even worry about it. If on opening day I'm penciled in, fine. If I'm on the extra list, I'll be happy with that, too. I have to earn a spot as much as anyone else does. I just go out and play. If I do well, hopefully I'll make the team. I'd love to get 400 at-bats. As long as I play well and help the team win."

The next two weeks will tell for sure.

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