Happy pitchers and catchers day! The Bucs (well, some of them) are in Bradenton, meaning we can officially declare that baseball season has begun! Here are some of the most important things you should be paying attention to this spring:
Who’s the 5th starter?
Francisco Liriano is a Bucco, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be ready to start the season. That means there would still be a spot in the starting rotation up for grabs until he’s back. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are in for sure. James McDonald and Jeff Karstens will most likely be behind them. The last spot will likely go to Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke. Both had short big league stints last year and McPherson was more impressive, but Locke has a better and more extensive minor-league track record (McPherson virtually skipped AAA while Locke pitched very well there) and posted solid peripherals. The decision could very well come down to spring performance. As for potential dark horses, Jonathan Sanchez could be one if he gets his act together, and Phil Irwin might have a chance to impress–his minor league numbers are right up there with Locke and McPherson.
Which James McDonald will show up?
Everyone is penciling J-Mac into the rotation, which is fine…but use pencil, not pen. I completely understand and agree with the rationale behind keeping McDonald and paying him through arbitration because of his ace-like first-half of last season, but let’s not completely forget how dreadful he was in the second half. McDonald is absolutely crucial to the Pirates’ success, because the difference between his “good” and “bad” self is just so enormous. Again, spring training results don’t tell you much, but if McDonald comes out of the gate extremely wild and inefficient, that’s going to be serious trouble. Confidence is a big thing with him, and (much like Pedro Alvarez last spring) if he continues to see utterly awful results in the early going, it’s hard not to imagine that carrying over into the real season.
Is Gerrit Cole close to being ready?
Cole won’t be on the big-league team when they head north, but he will get some time in the big-league camp and hopefully a decent amount of chances to pitch against major league hitters. That should help the staff gauge how close he is to being ready for the bigs (conventional wisdom is that he’ll start out in Indy and move up to Pittsburgh at some point later in the year). Spring performance won’t tell you everything (or even very much at all, really) but fans will be very anxious to see what he can do. Cole could be a potential X-factor that could give the Bucs a serious boost late in the season, which is obviously when they’ve needed one most the last two years.
The World Baseball Classic
Spring Training is a little different when the WBC takes place, as several key players are missing and the whole thing gets dragged out a little longer. Still, it’s competitive baseball that should be pretty interesting and it also offers fans a look at some important players. A couple notable Bucs are participating this year, and the WBC will give them serious/intense competition while the rest of the squad is still essentially messing around in exhibition games. The most interesting thing for me will be watching Jameson Taillon pitch for Canada. WBC games start on March 2nd, although the U.S. and most Pirates don’t start until March 7th. The finals are on March 19th.
The corner outfield situation
Starling Marte SHOULD have the LF spot all to himself, but that’s not a guarantee at this point. The RF spot is a complete mystery, with Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Jerry Sands, and Alex Presley all in the mix. Snider probably has the edge at the moment (although it’s not easy to pinpoint why), but with Tabata’s contract and Sands being a key part of the Joel Hanrahan trade, the Pirates are probably feeling some pressure to get something out of both of those two as well. Presley is probably in a distant fourth, but he’s seen plenty of playing time the last two years and seems to be a Clint Hurdle favorite. This will be a very interesting position battle during the spring and probably during much of the season as well.
The revamped bullpen
I’m not too worried about the bullpen, but it will look fairly different this year. Jason Grilli is the new closer, of course, and while he has the ability to succeed there, it’s a new role for him. After Grilli, there’s plenty of room for guys to step up into key late inning roles. Tony Watson and Jared Hughes are the only other big contributors from last year that will be back, and neither really profiles as a set-up man. Mark Melancon could grab that spot, and look for Bryan Morris, Vic Black, and Justin Wilson to compete for it as well.
PHOTO: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports