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Chris Archer, Gregory Polanco throwing are positive signs for Pirates

Kevin Gorman
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Chris Archer talks with catcher Francisco Cervelli during the third inning against the Braves Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier celebrates with right fielder Gregory Polanco after defeating the Reds Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, at PNC Park.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Chris Archer eyed the target and waved Keone Kela into an imaginary batter’s box. Kela playfully struck a pose, whirling his glove around while pretending it was a bat.

Then Archer, less than three months removed from bilateral hernia surgery, cocked back and fired a pitch Monday morning at Pirate City. It was the first day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, and Archer was confident he was right on schedule.

For Archer, bothered by an abdominal strain on his left side last season before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates last July, it was a sign he’s past the rehabilitation stage of his recovery.

“Look, I’m healthy so it’s not something I’m really thinking about anymore,” said Archer, who was 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA in 10 starts after being acquired from Tampa. “If we would’ve talked four weeks ago, we’d be having a different conversation. But I feel great, man. Injury is not on my mind whatsoever.

“Really, anything that happened last year is not on my mind. Whether I was contending for the Cy Young or I had the year that I had, I’m not really thinking or dwelling on last year because it’s a clean slate: new year, new team, new everything.”

On another outfield, Gregory Polanco tenderly tossed a baseball across the diamond for a longer distance than he has since dislocating his left (throwing) shoulder with an awkward slide into second base last September. That injury required surgery, which will cause the starting rightfielder to miss the start of the season.

Just a week after he started throwing, Polanco was soft-tossing up to 75-80 feet. Last week, he started with 20 throws to 60 feet and is building up his arm strength gradually after bulking up this offseason.

“I feel really well. There’s no pain,” said Polanco, who led the Pirates with 23 home runs last season. “Obviously, I’m tired but looser than last week. This week, it feels way better. I felt very strong. I know this process is going to be slow. I’m ahead of schedule, but I’m not trying to rush. I’m just working hard every day.”

Both were positive signs and steps in the right direction for the Pirates, even if Polanco throwing the ball 75 feet for the first time was merely baby steps.

Bringing Archer aboard in exchange for reliever Tyler Glasnow and former No. 1 picks in outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Shane Baz represented both a bold move at the trade deadline for the Pirates and one with an eye toward the future.

Archer is expected to be a key starter in a pitching rotation that also features Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove and promises to be a strength. Archer has thrown four bullpen sessions, with a fifth scheduled for Wednesday, and called his side session “pretty normal.”

“We’re going to start slow,” Archer said. “We’re not going to rush anything, but by the first week of the season, I’ll be ready to throw over 100 pitches. That’s the goal. We’ve got six weeks.”

Polanco already is resigned to the truth that his recovery will take much longer. Originally, the Pirates said it could take as long as seven to nine months for him to return to playing, but Polanco believes he is ahead of schedule and is hopeful to be back by mid-May at the latest.

“I’m trying to put everything together so when I come back I want to be 100 percent,” Polanco said. “I’m working really hard to be back sooner where everybody expects — even me. If I can be ready by mid-April or the beginning of May, I’ll take it. I just don’t want to be into June or July. That’s too late.”

The Pirates will take Archer and Polanco whenever they are ready, but they had to be pleased with the progress from a pair of pivotal players.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.