One of the phrases I most look forward to hearing every new year is “Pitchers and Catchers”. It means the boys of summer are ready to come out and play again. It means the long cold winter will soon be ending. It means another baseball season is just around the corner. For Gerrit Cole and company it means time to get back to work. Pirates pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Spring Training in Bradenton, FL on February 18th. Position players are scheduled to report five days later, though most will arrive a few days early. The Grapefruit League schedule begins on March 3rd against the Blue Jays. That will be the first of 32 Spring Training Exhibition games before the team travels to Cincinnati on April 6th for the first game of the 2015 season that counts. There are fewer unanswered questions for the Pirates this spring as compared to most. But that doesn’t mean this Spring Training is completely void of story lines and battles for roster spots. Here are the five things I will be paying the most attention to this preseason:
1) How will Jung-ho Kang fare against quality major league arms? Kang earned an opportunity to play Major League Baseball because of how he mashed against pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization, but the talent gap between KBO and MLB pitchers is huge. It will be interesting to see how well he fares against quality major league arms this spring. Everyone expects Kang will have some struggles this season, but it would be a good sign if he hits well in Grapefruit League play. It could mean his acclimation to MLB pitching is happening quicker than we originally hoped.
2) Where on the diamond will Jung-ho Kang play? GM Neal Huntington has said he sees Kang initially as a complementary player that could see some time at SS, 3B, and 2B. Is there a longer term plan to make him a regular at one of those infield positions? Where he plays the most this spring could provide some hints as to what the plans for Kang may be both for the short term and the long run.
3) How is Pedro Alvarez handling the position switch to 1B? Last season Pedro was given a crash course in how to play 1B after he developed the yips throwing from 3B. He played 37 innings at 1B before injuring his foot and missing the last month of the season. This spring the Pirates want to transition him to 1B for good. Pedro is not really thrilled about that decision. He still wants to play 3B. Will the Pirates accommodate Pedro and allow him to play at both positions? Will he sulk if it appears he is stuck playing 1B?
4) How far along is Charlie Morton in his rehab from hip surgery? Morton had surgery to repair the labrum of his right hip on 9/26/2014. The recovery was estimated at 6 to 8 months. A 6 month recovery puts him ready for opening day. Morton is already on a throwing program. If Morton sees any action within the first two weeks of the Grapefruit League schedule that is a good indication the Pirates intend to have him ready for the first week of the season. If not, Morton will start the season on the disabled list which would open up a spot for another starting pitcher, perhaps Jeff Locke. I believe the Pirates will take it slowly with Morton. His track record with injuries is too great to not be overly cautious.
5) Who will win the last roster spot(s) in the bullpen? There really are very few open roster spots on this team, but a middle reliever and/or a long man/swing starter role may be up for grabs. John Holdzkom appears to have a job in the pen now, but he might be the most vulnerable of being sent to the minors because he still has options left. Stolmy Pimentel is out of options, but the Pirates can’t just allow him to be a wasted dead roster spot like he was last year. It is still Pimentel’s job to lose, but lose it he could. Radhames Liz also appears to have a secure job after the Pirates signed him to a $1 million guaranteed contract, but Vin Mazzaro taught us last year that the Pirates are willing to send a reliever with a guaranteed major league contract down to Indianapolis. Perhaps the newly acquired Arquimedes Caminero can pitch himself onto the roster if one of the aforementioned pitchers struggle this spring.