Thompson's spot hangs in balance
Pirates' center-field battle may determine outfielder's status
BRADENTON, Fla. -- With all eyes on the Pirates' center-field battle, Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth have had plenty of face time this spring.
Both players arrived in Bradenton well aware of who their competition would be for the starting spot in the outfield. For now, they've battled to the point where management still has not reached a decision as to who will be standing in center in Atlanta on Opening Day.
But lost in all the hoopla as to whether it's going to be McLouth or Morgan has been outfielder Kevin Thompson, an offseason waiver claim who could find himself on the Opening Day roster depending on how the center-field battle plays out.
While the addition of Thompson to the team's 40-man roster passed with somewhat anonymity back in October, he may not begin the season virtually still unknown among the Pirates' faithful.
"I think I have a very good chance," Thompson said on Sunday. "We'll see in another week and a half or two. And we'll see where my chips fall."
So here's how things are shaping up right now with two weeks left before Opening Day. To begin with, the center-field battle remains too close to call.
"It's a great race," general manager Neal Huntington said. "I don't think there is anyone that's pulled away just yet. It may go right down to the wire. We have two very talented players."
If Morgan comes out ahead, then McLouth would step in as the team's fourth outfielder, someone who is more than capable of backing up all three of the team's starting outfielders.
"And at this point, that is probably the best path for him," Huntington said.
In such a scenario, Thompson would be optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.
However, if McLouth earns the starting nod, then the Pirates have a decision to make. Morgan could of course be added as the fourth outfielder on the team and be used as both a backup in center and left. The concern, though, with that scenario is playing time.
That's where the organization will have to weigh two options when it comes to Morgan's placement -- would it be more beneficial for the relatively inexperienced Morgan to have less playing time in the Majors or more playing time in the Minors?
"We have to determine how much playing time Nyjer would get and how we would get that playing time for him," Huntington said. "He's older, but he has missed a lot of playing time, so we need to make sure to give him the right path for his career. We'll have to play that one by ear."
As a result, it is quite possible that Morgan would return to Triple-A to start the season, a move that would ensure him of getting an adequate number of at-bats, which wouldn't be guaranteed at the Major League level.
That's where Thompson's fate comes into play.
If that's the route that the club takes, Thompson would appear to then be the likely choice to serve as the Pirates' fourth outfielder. He has shown that his previously injured right shoulder is no longer a liability, and he has proven to be able to adequately play any of the three outfield spots, if necessary.
Maybe there is a place for the 28-year-old outfielder after all.
"I think I'm playing good defense, and I know my hitting will come around," said Thompson, who spent his first seven years of professional baseball in the Yankees' farm system. "All I'm trying to do is show them that I can play all of the outfield positions well, and I feel like I've done that."
Manager John Russell has lauded Thompson's defensive play on more than one occasion this spring. And while Thompson cites improvement to be had on the offensive end, the outfielder hasn't been subpar so far.
Heading into Sunday's contest against the Red Sox, Thompson had appeared in 14 games for the Pirates this spring. His six RBIs were tied for second most on the club, while his .310 average was also among the team's best.
The fact that Thompson has just 41 games of Major League experience would be a legitimate concern. And if Thompson were to make the team instead of Morgan, it wouldn't be as much for what he's done, as it would be for what the Pirates deem most advantageous for Morgan's development.
Thompson said he doesn't care.
Regardless, Thompson insists that he's going to take advantage of whatever opportunity he may be given and won't be spending the next two weeks wondering what his place on this team could be. He hasn't thus far, so why start now?
"I try not to think about that," Thompson said. "If you do, you start wondering every day where you fit in and how you fit in and whether it's even worth trying. You can't take that approach. I take it as I'm going to be on this team every day."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.