BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's almost as if the clubhouse at Pirate City has different tiers to it.

There are the established Major Leaguers, simply using these next six weeks to prepare for the season. There are the fringe players, those fighting for the last few spots on the big league roster. And there are those, like second baseman Shelby Ford, who are simply getting their first taste.

For Ford, the Pirates' third-round selection in the 2006 First-Year Player's Draft, the invitation to participate in Major League Spring Training this season is a sign that the middle infielder doesn't sit too far away from being considered Major League-ready.

Baseball America ranked Ford, 24, the eighth-best prospect in the Pirates organization heading into the '09 season. However, he has gone a bit under the radar since he doesn't have that flashy 'can't-miss-prospect' label attached to him like others coming up through the organization. But as Pirates farm director Kyle Stark said, Ford has the makeup and potential to turn some heads.

"He's one of those guys who doesn't necessarily flash you any plus-tools, but he shows a lot of solid average out there and is a good baseball player," Stark said.

Ford will start the season in Triple-A, where he will be the everyday second baseman for Indianapolis. He'll also be starting the season healthy, which, if you've followed Ford's three-year track through the Minors, is the first step.

In his two full seasons since leaving Oklahoma State University, Ford has never played more than 94 games in a season. In 2007, a back ailment ended his season in July. A similar back/hip injury cut into the start of Ford's season last year as well. A high ankle sprain then put Ford back on the disabled list midseason.

To top it off, Ford's Arizona Fall League season ended early when he fractured the knuckle in his right index finger while making a bunt attempt.

"It was frustrating to come from an injury in '07 to a couple of times in '08," Ford said. "And then it happens in Arizona, and I'm like, 'When is it going to end?' But you can't look at those and think that's what is going to happen your whole career. You just have to think about going out and playing the game."

In order to try and avoid any further back injuries -- which has been a recurring injury for Ford -- the Pirates revamped his offseason workout program in order to focus on building up Ford's core strength. And after working with his dad, a high school baseball coach, back home in Texas this winter, Ford said he has come into camp feeling more prepared physically than any other time in his playing career.

"As far as my back and my hip, everything feels great," Ford reported. "There are no more problems there."

Assuming Ford can stay healthy, the key moving forward will be consistency. That's actually been a strength of Ford's thus far in his climb through the Minor Leagues. After hitting .265 in 55 games at the low Class A level in 2006, Ford finished the 2007 season with a .281 average, 26 doubles, seven triples, five homers and 55 RBIs at high Class A Lynchburg.

The step up to Double-A Altoona in 2008 was fairly seamless as well, with Ford batting .285 with 23 doubles, 10 triples, four homers and 32 RBIs in 13 fewer games than he had played the year before. Ford also cut down his strikeout total last season.

"Probably my biggest step was coming in right off of that and not hurting," Ford said. "I came right back out of the gates and was able to pick up right back where I left off."

With Ford set to play at the highest Minor League level this season, it is certainly within the realm of possibilities that the young second baseman will be competing for a Major League roster spot one year from now.

In fact, that was the reasoning behind the Pirates inviting Ford to camp this year.

"Rather than have his first Spring Training be one where he is coming in to compete for a job, he can at least be acclimated to how this works," Stark said.

Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, and it is no sure thing that the club will pick up his $8 million option for 2010. If the Pirates don't, Sanchez would become a free agent, and the Pirates could certainly look internally for a replacement. At that point, Ford would be an option.

While the first step is obviously to see if Ford can play an entire season healthy, Stark agreed with the possibility that Ford might not be all that far away.

"Personally, I think that whenever they feel like I'm ready, they'll do what they need to do," Ford said in response. "If it's not this year, that's fine. I just want to be able to go out and play all year.

"It stays in the back of my mind," he added. "If you start thinking about it too quick or too early, you're only going to hurt yourself by getting too cocky. You really have to just take it as it goes."