Procuring space for Big Country to grow
With Eldred's tantalizing potential, finding at-bats tantamount
PITTSBURGH -- In the summer of 2004, when then-Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon was asked where he thought Pittsburgh could get some desperately needed power, he just smiled and started to tell stories of this young kid they called "Big Country."
And not just stories about a kid who could hit home runs, but about a kid hitting legendary home runs. Paul Bunyanesque home runs. High, far, deep and massive home runs. Against the wind. Off buildings. The kind of stories that make you roll your eyes in disbelief.
Big Country is Brad Eldred, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound first baseman, of whom current skipper Jim Tracy says, "If there is a stronger Major League player on any other club, I don't know of him."
Then, almost as if he needed to confirm those legendary stories, or just add to them, Tracy went on to say, "When he hits a baseball well, it will go as far as a baseball can possibly travel. That's how powerful he is."
With 94 home runs in his last 320 Minor League games, Eldred was given a chance to show the big club what he could do, and in July 2005, he joined the Pirates. While his power was prodigious, with 12 home runs in 190 at-bats, so were his strikeouts as he struggled at the plate, hitting just .221. Nevertheless, the power and potential were intoxicating.
Last season was supposed to be the year Eldred finally got to show what he could do on a regular basis, but when he struggled in Spring Training, it was decided to let him get everyday at-bats in the Minors in order to fine-tune his game. Unfortunately, 18 games into the season, Eldred fractured his left thumb and damaged the collateral ligament in the joint during a collision at first base. While he didn't play another game in 2006, Eldred himself thinks it might have been a blessing, as the injury forced him to do what the at-bats were supposed to -- refine his swing.
"In a way, it was a good thing," he said, "because of the amount of time I worked on just hitting and mechanics, and fine-tuning my swing."
As opposed to trying to adjust his stance and swing with each at-bat, Eldred was forced to step back and not swing a bat for months. By the time he was ready to start rehab, he had forgotten many of the bad habits he had developed.
"When I came back, I didn't remember exactly how I was standing and went by feel and what felt the most comfortable," Eldred explained. "That's how I redeveloped my swing, and now, I think, I'm in a better position."
As to whether it's a good thing to miss an entire season, Eldred isn't ready to make that leap, but he no longer looks at it as a lost year.
"It's bad to miss a season, but at the same time, maybe it made my swing a bit better," he said.
Possibly an even better player than he was before the injury. Hit over .300 with six home runs during Spring Training.
|"Brad Eldred cannot be an effective player batting twice a week. We have to find ways to involve him and get him at-bats."|
|-- Bucs manager Jim Tracy|
But the Pirates traded for Adam LaRoche in the offseason, and he is expected to be a fixture at first base. Lured by the tantalizing visions of Eldred's enormous power, the Pirates kept him on the team. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out how to get him at-bats.
"Brad Eldred cannot be an effective player batting twice a week," Tracy admitted. "We have to find ways to involve him and get him at-bats."
Just to see what he could do, Tracy had him take some balls in the outfield, and to say he was surprised by Big Country's agility would be an understatement.
"I experimented with him playing some outfield, and he stunned me," Tracy said. "I didn't expect to see the type of quality that I saw defensively."
Though he hasn't played the outfield since college, it wasn't a position he was afraid of.
"I have a pretty decent understanding of the position and how to get reads on the ball," Eldred said, adding, "I like it, it's kind of cool, because it's an exciting [time] out there."
Moreover, being out there assures more at-bats. "I'll stand anywhere if I can get at-bats," he said.
With the ability to put Eldred in the outfield, as well as spelling LaRoche at first base, Tracy is closer to getting Eldred the at-bats he needs. Meanwhile, hitting coach Jeff Manto is working with Eldred to keep him prepared.
"He's the kind of player who is going to have at-bats where he looks overmatched," Manto said, "But if he gets on a roll, he can literally carry a team for two weeks; he has that kind of ability and power."
Having worked with Eldred, Manto also thinks that Eldred has more upside than just being a home run hitter.
"What often gets overlooked," he said, "is that he has the ability to hit, not just to swing, but to take a slider the other way."
Of course, while taking a slider the other way is nice, putting that slider into the Allegheny River is the stuff of which legends are made.
Glenn Rabney is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.