Bucking a trend: Pirates seek solution to April struggles

Bucking a trend: Pirates seek solution to April struggles

BRADENTON, Fla. -- This is typically the time of year for position battles and roster debates, for stretching out starting pitchers and shaking off a winter's worth of rust.

But over the past few years, the Pirates have used Spring Training to address more specific issues, improve upon their weaknesses and get every bit of potential out of their roster. This time last year, they focused on improving their pitchers' hitting. This spring, a better start offensively appears to be near the top of their to-do list.

The Pirates have struggled at the plate in April each of the past two seasons. They've proven their ability to dig out of an early hole, but they'd prefer to avoid one entirely this year.

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"Collectively, as a team, we're going to wrap our heads around it and go from there," shortstop Jordy Mercer said.

How will they go about reversing the trend? That remains to be seen. Over the offseason, Pirates coaches called players to talk about their April slumps, asking what could be done during Spring Training to mitigate the problem.

"I don't know. I wish I knew," Mercer said. "It could be a matter of getting more at-bats in Spring Training, maybe taking fewer at-bats. I don't know. We're going to tinker with it a little bit."

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Why not? In 2014, the Pirates hit .221/.296/.351 as a team in the first month of the season. The rest of the way, their lowest monthly OPS was July's .738, nearly 100 points higher than their .647 mark in April.

It didn't get much better last year. In April, the Bucs batted .230/.280/.360 and scored 4.05 runs per game. Some of that could be attributed to Andrew McCutchen having the worst offensive month of his career, largely the result of a nagging knee injury. Josh Harrison and Mercer also struggled early on.

Within their first 25 games, the Pirates lost seven by one run. They still went on to win 98 games and reached the postseason, but what if they had jumped out of the gate better?

How might the division race have changed if they eked out a few more runs in the right situations last April? Could they have surpassed the Cardinals, won the National League Central and avoided the Jake Arrieta buzzsaw?

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The Pirates don't have many position battles to resolve, and there aren't many roster spots up for grabs. That gives them an opportunity to experiment this spring, seeking the solution to a flaw they'd like to fix.

"From a roster construction standpoint, the simple answer is better players give us a better chance to win," general manager Neal Huntington said earlier this offseason. "From a preparation standpoint, it is something that we're working through. How do we best individualize the Spring Training program to help each player get ready for the season?

"That is something that we'll continue to work through. Maybe if we can get off to a better start, we'll put ourselves in a much better situation to be in the hunt late and, ideally, to win a division."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.