Bunt cake for Pierre

It is one thing to be a gifted player, and another again to constantly develop your gifts. Juan Pierre is not the greatest hitter in the majors, but he's somehow piled up 200-plus hits in three of the last four seasons.

That speaks to his standing as a true craftsman.

It's no coincidence that the best at their business are often the smartest. Greg Maddux is the one pitcher on the Chicago Cubs' talented pitching staff who makes it a point to watch the opposing team take batting practice, always searching for ways to exploit hitters. If he gets out to the dugout especially early on days the Florida Marlins are in town, he can sometimes catch a glimpse of Pierre doing his own distinct form of preparation.

On the first day of a series on the road, Pierre will go out to home plate with a bag full of baseballs and slowly roll them down the first- and third-base lines, watching to see whether they move toward the infield or roll toward foul territory.

Teams never have to do that when they visit Pro Player Stadium. With Pierre and Luis Castillo in the lineup, they know that the Marlins have their field set up with the baselines tiling toward the infield, not away from it.

Pierre and his teammate, Castillo, are 1 and 1A on our list of the best bunters in baseball. You couldn't go wrong with either of them, nor Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, for that matter. Detroit's Alex Sanchez gets a ton of bunt hits but often leaves Alan Trammell scratching his head about how he can't get a sacrifice down in the late innings.

Pierre, among the game's best bunters, has most used that old-fashioned weapon to turn himself into a dynamic force. And he also happens to be on the short list of players you would most want a Little Leaguer to emulate.

"I can't imagine anybody working harder at anything than Juan Pierre,'' said Cubs special assistant Gary Hughes, who fell for Pierre when both were with the Rockies. "He might be my favorite player in baseball. All I know is his work ethic is unbelievable. Our minor-league staff (in Colorado) got tired of trying to beat him to the ballpark. He's just unbelievable.''

A 13th-round pick in the 1998 draft, Pierre was not a highly-touted prospect. But he has succeeded where most talented players failed, in large part because he understands his strengths and limitations. He is listed as 6-foot, 180 pounds, but is an inch or two shorter and maybe 15 pounds lighter.

Hughes said Pierre was a "good bunter'' when he first saw him play, in the South Atlantic League in 1999. But when Hughes helped prepare scouting reports for the 2003 National League Championship Series, he cautioned that he was a great bunter. He says the difference is that Pierre always works to make himself more skilled.

Pierre mastered the art of bunting as a means to using his blinding speed to first base (he's been clocked as quick as 3.6 seconds). He never got caught up in the macho pursuit of swinging for the fence, resisting the temptation of trying to swing for the fences, even when playing at Coors Field, where left-handed hitters love to use the prevailing winds to send balls flying out of the park.

"Pierre knows what he can do and what he can't do,'' Hughes said. "I think that's so important -- to know what kind of a player you are, and what you aren't. He's not going to start pumping weights and hit the ball out of Pro Player Stadium.''

Because teams must respect his ability to drag bunt, Pierre gets dozens of hits every season that are slapped just out of the reach of the corner infielders. He's as skilled at putting the ball on the ground to left field as pulling it toward right field. He has good enough bat control to show bunt and then swing away, which can be a third baseman's nightmare.

Pierre almost always bunted or at least feigned a bunt the first time to the plate in 2003, when he put 90 bunts in play, pulling the infielders in for the whole game. He varied that pattern last season, saving his bunts for later parts of the game, when he sensed the fielders had perhaps relaxed.

You can be sure Pierre will work to refine that approach when spring training arrives. It is what he does.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.