Clement focused on earning first-base job
Former No. 3 overall pick gladly trades in his catching gear
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The days at Spring Training start especially early for Jeff Clement.
While other players are trickling into the Pirate City clubhouse or grabbing a quick breakfast in the cafeteria, Clement is out on the field breaking a sweat. Pirates infield coach Carlos Garcia is out there, too. He's teacher, encourager and critic all at once.
It's grounder after grounder after grounder for Clement, whose crash course at first base means that there might be as many as three separate fielding sessions with Garcia each day. Most other infielders have just one.
But Clement works with intention and is driven by a goal. By the end of Spring Training, he wants to leave no doubt in management's mind about who should be the club's first baseman on Opening Day. He's determined to earn it.
"Jeffrey is all in," said Garcia, who is in his first year as Pittsburgh's Major League infield instructor. "He just wants to learn as much as he can. You see it from every angle. He's asking all the right questions. He's trying to learn defensive positions and situations. That's good. He's a young guy who wants to make an effort to learn. I can't ask for anything else."
The Bucs have made it no secret that they want Clement to be the team's first baseman to start 2010. The organization likes his bat that much. But there remain questions about Clement's abilities defensively, and the former catcher has the next six weeks to do everything he can to put those concerns to rest.
That's why he's out in the morning. It's why he continues to field ground balls from Garcia well after the rest of the infielders have moved on to batting practice or headed out to lunch. Clement left snowy Iowa and migrated south to Bradenton about two weeks before position players were required to report in order to begin his daily infield work in earnest.
"I feel like I can get a lot better, but I also feel good about where I am right now, too," Clement said. "Obviously, there are a lot of important things to that position. But ultimately, it's making the plays that you're supposed to make. The progression went a lot quicker than I thought it was going to, as far as fielding ground balls."
Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who hadn't fielded a grounder since high school before using a first baseman's mitt in 2009.
When the Mariners talked to Clement about the prospect of making a position change from catcher to first last summer, Clement had no idea that the experiment could become his best ticket to the Major Leagues. He was traded to the Pirates soon after in a seven-player swap, and the move to first became permanent.
It helped that Clement arrived this spring after having played first in 22 games for Triple-A Indianapolis late last season. It was then that Clement began learning the intricacies of the positions -- where to position himself for cutoffs and relays, how to execute pickoffs to perfection and what the right positioning is when fielding.
But Clement is still building his defensive foundation. Occasionally, his catching instincts kick in and Clement finds himself blocking a ball instead of trusting his hands to catch it cleanly. There's consistency to maintain. And there is still a need to see how he improves his handling of live balls off the bat during a game.
"It was definitely a transition for him," said Garcia, who observed Clement in Indianapolis last season. "He has a lot of energy and a lot of desire to do good at that position, and that's half of the battle. Sometimes when you have a guy making a position change, you're going to see some resistance.
"He's getting better. By halfway through camp, you'll see a different player, for sure."
When asked about Clement's progress, manager John Russell shied away from predicting whether or not Clement looks to be on track defensively to solidify that Opening Day roster spot. It's too early to make broad assessments, Russell cautioned, even if the potential for success is there.
"We're not going to put a lot of pressure on him," Russell said. "We'll get him ready to compete in games and then we'll start making evaluations as we move forward. He has the tools to do it. It's a position that you work low, and you're used to that being a catcher. So far, I'm pleased with what he's able to do."
Clement lost the opportunity to work on his defense in Pittsburgh last September after an oblique strain sidelined him near the end of the Triple-A season. The good news is that there is no residual effect from the injury, even though it did prevent Clement from taking many cuts in the batting cage until December.
Clement has made it known that he'd love to crouch behind the plate again if the opportunity arises and his knees hold up. But with his bat as his calling card and the team's current vacancy being at first, Clement doesn't mind shifting catching to the back of his mind for the time being.
This is the first time since being the No. 3 pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft that Clement has a legitimate chance to make an Opening Day roster. And as a result, he sees no reason to be picky which glove he'll have to wear to do so.
"That's all you can ask for coming into Spring Training," he said. "Obviously, I'm not going to get the job handed to me, and nobody else is, either. But as long as I go out there, take care of business and play well, I know I've got a great shot at making the team. What a great opportunity. That's what everybody wants."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.