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Pirates 2B Harrison looking for healthy, productive 2017
By ROB BIERTEMPFEL
BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) Josh Harrison knew his surgically repaired thumb was finally ready to handle the rigors of a full baseball season when it passed the Mia test.
The Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman tore a ligament in his left thumb in July 2015. Surgery fixed the damage, but Harrison's hand often felt weak and stiff last season.
This past winter, as he played with Mia, his 3-year-old daughter, Harrison realized he was fully recovered.
"I had a normal offseason," Harrison said. "I played with my daughter and could throw her in the air. I didn't have to have (to say), `Hold on, Daddy's thumb (hurts).' I could throw her in the air, high enough to where she says, `Daddy, again!'"
Lingering discomfort in his thumb was only one of Harrison's problems last year. In mid-September, he strained his groin while rounding first base on a double, and missed the rest of the season.
Harrison wound up with a .283 batting average and a .699 OPS. Both numbers were a significant drop-off from his performance in 2014, when Harrison hit .315 and had a .717 OPS, got a spot on the NL All-Star team and wound up ninth in the MVP voting.
Trying to live up to the $27.3 million contract he got at the start of the 2015 season, Harrison pressed at the plate. His sore thumb made the job more difficult.
"If it was cold or if I didn't hit a ball right, just rolling over that joint sometimes would be painful enough to where I would know that it was still there," Harrison said.
Compensating for the pain in his hand, Harrison tightened his grip on the bat. He wound up wrecking his swing.
"This offseason, I had to go back to the drawing board - not to change things, but just to retrain my hands to work together," Harrison said.
Harrison reported to spring training fully healthy for the first time in nearly two years. During his offseason workouts, he was able to lift weights and swing in the batting cage without problems.
"I was able to get after it like I wanted to, without any reservations," Harrison said.
He started 122 games at second base last season, his first as an regular player at one position. He broke in with the Pirates in 2011 as a utility player and stayed in that role until Neil Walker was traded.
So far this spring, Harrison has worked out every day at second base. However, the uncertain status of third baseman Jung Ho Kang could force Harrison back into a utility role.
Kang on Feb. 22 admitted to driving under the influence in South Korea and is awaiting a verdict hearing on March 3. The Pirates have not said when they expect Kang to rejoin the team or if he will be suspended.
David Freese likely will start at third base while Kang is out, but Harrison also could get some time at the corner position.
"It's a great topic of discussion that we continue to have," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We'll see where it takes us. I understand knowing and I understand comfort. If situations change, I do think there is a buy-in (to move) that's real with him. I do think his versatility can help him."
During a meeting with Hurdle early in camp, Harrison said he'd be willing to take some playing time at third base.
"Regardless of where I played last year, certain instances might call for me (to move)," Harrison said. "Who would I be to say, `No, I won't go (to third)?' For the time being, I'm going to focus on second. But if I'm asked to do something else, I'm always ready."
Updated February 25, 2017