Showalter talks about VandenHurk, J.J., Gonzo and more

SARASOTA, Fla. - New pitching coach Mark Connor interrupted Rick VandenHurk’s bullpen session today and slid the rosin bag underneath the pitcher’s right heel.

I’ll admit, that was a first for me. I hadn’t seen a pitching coach use this technique, though it’s probably been done.

“Just putting myself in a better position,” VandenHurk said. “I had a little too much weight on my heel instead of my front foot, so he put that there to get my weight a little bit more on my front foot so I could get in a better position.”

VandenHurk, acquired from the Florida Marlins last summer in the Will Ohman trade, said he felt good for his first Sarasota bullpen session.

I asked manager Buck Showalter about the need to take a long look at VandenHurk this spring, since the right-hander is out of options, and also brought up how he appears - at least on paper - to be squeezed out of the rotation and bullpen.

“Things will change overnight in a hurry with these guys,” Showalter said. “And let’s not reinvent the wheel for anything with these guys. There’s been some really good guys in Florida and here to work with him. I’m kind of curious to see if you know the history of what they tried to do with him when he first got there in Florida and what they did with him late last season before he came to us. And what he was doing, some arm slots.

“This guy, he came up from here to here (raising and lowering arm). Had a lot of hamsters running in different directions in the wheel. So, we’re trying to get those squirrels to come to a halt in his career. I know Mark has some different ideas with him.

“He’s what they look like, he’s what they act like. Physically, makeup, everything. He’s a hard worker, great conditioned. He brings all the attributes you look for in a starting pitcher, or a pitcher in general. It just hasn’t happened for him.”

Here are some more quotes from Showalter:

On Luis Lebron’s first bullpen session: “Good to see Lebron back on the mound. Right where he’s supposed to be with that surgery. He threw about 30 pitches. But it’s good to see him take that and feel good afterward. Have had everybody throw now. That’s good. Got through it.”

On whether any thought has been given to making Jim Johnson or Jason Berken a starter again: “I’ve considered it. I’ve considered all of them. You look at all of them outside the box a little bit in terms of what a guy may have been pigeonholed into. But right now, J.J.’s getting ready to be a piece in our bullpen.”

The same with Berken? “Yes.”

“Berken’s on a little different situation than J.J. because he has options and J.J. doesn’t,” Showalter said.

Focusing on Johnson again, Showalter added, “I know repertoire-wise, I think he’s capable of doing both things. It’s kind of going to be what the needs of the club are initially. You look at some of the health issues that we have to get some of our arms around. You look at Duke (Justin Duchscherer) and other guys. I wouldn’t play up that starting thing with Johnson, personally, too strongly at this point right now, especially because of some of the health issues he had last year. Right now, he’s focused and we’re focused with how he can help us in the bullpen. But I do know that’s there as a potential avenue.”

Showalter didn’t want to revisit Michael Gonzalez’s health issues last spring. He’s turning the page.

“I’ve actually heard enough about it. OK? He’s got a good look in his eye. Feels good where he is physically compared to last year. I’m not going to dwell on whether...whose fault it might have been. Let’s move forward and build on the two good months he had for us,” Showalter said.

“It could all change in one outing, but so far, so good. He felt really good today out there. He could be the piece that Andy (MacPhail) and everybody projected when they signed him. Could be quite a weapon for us. He’s one of those guys that when he’s right, left-right-left, you don’t have to make two pitching changes. Those guys are hard to find.”

I brought up Jake Fox’s name and how he reported with the catchers, but could break camp in more of a utility infield role. Showalter mentioned that Fox caught only two games in winter ball.

“There’s more than one way he can make the club,” Showalter said. “He can make it as a second catcher, he can make it as a third catcher that can play multiple positions. He’s going to have some stiff competition. I expect that to be a competitive spot to win this club. We got a lot of guys. It’s tough to handicap. I’m talking about the (Robert) Andinos and (Brendan) Harris’ and (Nick) Greens.

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