Bucs' hot corner up for grabs

Bautista set to battle for Bucs hot corner

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates have several decisions to make before the season begins. Perhaps one of the most interesting battles so far, though, is one concerning two Joses -- Bautista and Castillo -- and the one remaining infield spot.

With 2006 National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez likely shifting to second base this year, newcomer Adam LaRoche manning first base and Jack Wilson returning to shortstop, the hot corner is up for grabs, and Bautista is determined to fight his way into the Pirates lineup, wherever that may be.

Fortunately for Bautista and to the delight of Pirates manager Jim Tracy, Bautista can play anywhere.

Well, almost anywhere.

"I don't know about catching," Bautista said with a laugh. "I've never done that, but I'll pitch a couple of innings."

It's an attitude he's kept with him when he played five positions with four Major League teams over the last three seasons, and a mindset that makes a guy like Bautista hard to ignore.

Tracy has long been a big fan of utilitymen, and the fact that Bautista has played at second and third base, in each of the outfield spots and even a game or two at shortstop and as a designated hitter isn't lost on him.

For now though, it seems Bautista is duking it out with Castillo for an everyday spot at third.

Bautista got the nod for the Grapefruit League opener on Thursday, and he responded with a standout gloveside play in the second inning that stranded a Reds runner at second base and allowed the Pirates to maintain a 2-1 lead.

"It is a bigger challenge. Rather that just working on one thing, you've got to be working at different positions all the time," Bautista said. "If that's what is handed to me, I'll work on it, but it's a lot harder than just playing right field. You've got to work on different angles and stuff like that."

And, he added, he probably should carry three gloves with him at all times, because he never knows where he'll end up.

"That's what everybody wants, a steady job," Bautista said. "But before I get that handed to me, I've got to prove myself, and that's what they're waiting for. Hopefully last year was a stepping stone, and I'll just go from there."

Challenging him for the daily role in the lineup is Castillo, the incumbent second baseman who said a series of personal issues contributed to a 2006 falloff that saw him make a career-high 18 errors and produce the lowest batting average (.253) in his three Major League seasons.

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"My mind was on family problems ... and things weren't right on the field," said Castillo, who hit just .110 (8-for-73) in the last month of play. "It bothered me a lot, going to the field every day thinking that I didn't have the same approach at the plate and thinking about the family problems."

Though he declined to elaborate on the nature of the problems, Castillo said they now are in the past and he's focused on getting back to his 2004-05 form. He showed his commitment by excelling during the Venezuelan Winter League and reporting to Spring Training after dropping what he said was 10 pounds, but instead appeared closer to 20.

Also, Castillo said, he began a new approach to hitting during winter play: driving the ball to the middle and right side of the field. It worked well for him there. In 46 games, he hit .308 with five home runs and 40 RBIs.

Just before PirateFest a month ago, Wilson called out Castillo for his lack of effort toward the end of the season, saying during a television interview, among other things, that if Castillo wasn't going to give his best effort, Wilson would rather someone else take his place. The situation has since been resolved, and Castillo said he's now ready to prove he's the starting infield's missing piece for 2007.

"My mind was in some other place [last year], and I wasn't doing the things I was supposed to do," Castillo said. "That's why I went to winter ball and started working and trying to be consistent.

"This year is going to be about giving 100 percent and being consistent, like it was in winter ball. I'm going to try to help the team win."

Whether versatility or history wins the battle is anyone's guess at this point. Tracy said, as he's reiterated several times this spring, he's not going to make any quick judgments. Spring games have just begun, and he's going to take full advantage of the month of March to observe and select.

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.