Can Pierre steal a roster spot?

Posted: February 26, 2012

Inside the Phillies

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It was late September 2003, and the Phillies were playing Juan Pierre's Florida Marlins at whatever that football stadium in South Florida was called at the time.

The Phillies trailed the Marlins by one game in the National League wild-card race when they arrived. After the Marlins won the second game of the series to all but assure themselves of a spot in the playoffs, Pierre glanced into the visitors' dugout and was amused by what he saw.

"I forget exactly how we won, but Larry Bowa threw his scorecard, and all these other papers just started flying all over the dugout," Pierre said, a huge smile crossing his face. "That's the year we won it and our biggest battles were with the Phillies. I think we had a couple of fights. Alex Gonzalez and Todd Pratt had a fight at one point in the season. It was heated."

Six years later, Pierre was playing left field for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth inning at Citizens Bank Park when Jimmy Rollins lined a game-ending double off closer Jonathan Broxton that put the Phillies one win away from a second consecutive trip to the World Series.

"The Philly fans almost turned over our bus leaving the stadium that night," Pierre said.

Stick around long enough in the big leagues and your longtime rivals may become your closest friends and teammates.

Juan Pierre, 34, is a Phillie now, and he's curious to see how he'll be received.

"I don't know how the Philly fans are going to take to me," he said. "I don't know if they're going to like me or hate me, because they've said everything in the book to me over the course of my career. They used to call me Juanita."

Far more important than how he is received by the fans of Philadelphia is how he is perceived by his new teammates and employers.

Rollins, after all these years, is glad to have Pierre on his side, because he used to hate defending against all that speed.

"He was a pest," Rollins said. "He was always a tough out. He's legitimately fast enough where if he hit the ball to your right side at shortstop, he could beat it out, and that put a lot of pressure on you because you couldn't play the depth you needed to play to cut the angle down. You always had to give up a lot.

"And when he was on base, he would just run, run, run and he was safe, safe, safe. It always seemed like in the critical time of a game, he would always get that base . . . that put him in scoring position. He was just one of those guys where you'd be like, 'Jeez, I'm so glad we got him out,' because now you can relax and play your position."

The Juan Pierre whom Rollins remembers may not be the same guy who figures to be part of the Phillies' opening-day roster, but at 34 he is just two years removed from stealing a league-leading 68 bases for the Chicago White Sox.

As Chicago's starting leftfielder last season, Pierre hit .279, scored 80 runs, and stole 27 bases. He also was caught stealing 17 times, marking the seventh time in his career he led his league in that dubious distinction.

"Obviously, he's not the same player he had been, but he's still a guy that can help us offensively, especially with his speed," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "He had a very, very good year last year. He had more hits than anybody on our team."

With 178 hits, Pierre had 26 more than Rollins, who led the Phillies.

Amaro didn't pursue Pierre until the end of January, and when the general manager called, the longtime Phillies rival was pleasantly surprised. Not only did he want a chance to play with Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard, he also relished the opportunity to play with pitcher Dontrelle Willis, his former Florida teammate and close friend.

"I'm the godfather to three of his kids," Pierre said. "That's my little big brother. It's been about eight years since we've been on the same team, so it's exciting."

Even with the D-Train connection, Pierre was a little skeptical about why the Phillies were interested, so he told his agent he personally wanted to speak to Amaro.

"To be honest, I didn't have too many choices," he said. "It was late in the offseason, and I felt Ruben pretty much had his team set, so once they called I was shocked and I guess honored, too. They're not in the business of wasting time. They're in the business of winning."

Amaro told Pierre that with Howard likely sidelined for at least the first month of the season, a spot on the roster was there for the taking. Pierre, a non-roster invitee, is the leading candidate to take that spot. He will be paid an $800,000 base salary if he makes the club and has a March 31 out clause if he is not added to the roster by that date.

How much Pierre will play if he makes the team depends on how well he plays, but that's not his main concern right now.

"I just want to make the team," he said. "That's it. That's my goal right there. Once I do that, then I'll think about the other part."


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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