BRADENTON, Fla. -- Brian Bixler has the look of a ballplayer. Bixler walked off the field after pregame practice on Thursday at McKechnie Field, a bag loaded with his baseball gear slung over his shoulders, and nodded at fans who called his name for autographs.

He's at ease with it all, even though it's his first time at a Major League camp. But the way the 24-year-old infielder from Sandusky, Ohio, has played in Spring Training, the first surely won't be his last.

"How can you not like what you've seen from this guy?" Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "He's a baseball player -- a solid baseball player. It's very impressive to see, no question about it."

Tracy's comments aren't store-bought praise. His are formed from spending the past four weeks watching Bixler solidify his credentials as a legitimate candidate to make the Opening Day roster.

"If it happens, it happens," said Bixler, who had a .417 average with a home run, a triple and two doubles across his first 24 Spring Training at-bats. "If it doesn't, that's all right, too. I'm still going to have the same mind-set and same goals for the season."

Those goals are clear as the Florida sky. At the center of them is one concrete objective: to be the best ballplayer he can be.

Bixler will have that objective no matter where he spends the 2007 season. If he opens in Double-A Altoona, where he finished the '06 season, he'd have no complaints. Should he end up at Triple-A Indianapolis, he'd be just as happy.

But he'd be lying if he said he didn't long to make the Opening Day roster.

"I think anyone who doesn't make it will be disappointed," he said. "But I'm a younger guy coming in and initially wasn't expected to make it.

"So I'm just trying to make the best of it."

He's surely done that, Tracy said.

"What I've seen is a very steady player -- nothing splashy," Tracy said of Bixler. "We're not interested in that, anyway. We sent that message a year ago.

"We're after a lot of substance, and this kid brings a lot of that to the table."

It is that "substance" that Tracy spoke of that has opened people's eyes to Bixler, who admits without a hint of cockiness that his Spring Training has gone well. Bixler's challenge now is to keep playing at that same high level.

"I'm a kid learning a lot," he said. "I'm taking that experience and trying to run with it. I'm trying to learn as much as I can from the veteran players, see how they do things and how they prepare for games."

As he's picked up things here and there, Bixler hasn't let his core approach change; he's worked hard and stayed focused. He's taken no shortcuts, and he's savoring his first taste of big-league life.

For Bixler, it's been a delicious experience.

Not that he wasn't prepared for it, though. Bixler came to camp as prepared for success as he's ever been. And, by all accounts, he has succeeded.

"It's gone a lot how I expected it to," he said. "I'm just sticking with it each day and hope no surprises come."