The Pirates and Yankees will play their spring training game at 1:05 today. I'm always of two minds about this; I get really excited about the potential return of baseball, but then I'll also probably be bored with spring training games by Friday (excepting any games that I may see in person if I'm able to go to Bradenton, of course). I don't have anything against spring training, it's just that the majority of players in the Pirates' camp have their fates for the first part of 2014 set and there's not much that can change that. Of course, that's not true for everyone, and so I figured I'd make a list of the things that I'm keeping an eye on in Bradenton this year.
Can anyone take a rotation spot from Edinson Volquez?
If you assume that Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez have rotation spots nailed down (and they do, with Rodriguez's health being the only obvious variable at this point in the spring), that only leaves one rotation spot to be contested in the Grapefruit League. The Pirates are paying Edinson Volquez $5 million this year, which makes him the frontrunner for that rotation spot. I'm not convinced he's the best pitcher for the rotation, though, and so he's at least theoretically able to be challenged by Stolmy Pimentel and Jeff Locke for that final spot. I like Pimentel a lot; he had a pretty solid bounce-back season with Altoona and Indianapolis last year after struggling a bit in the Red Sox system, and he looked really solid in his short stint in the Pirates' bullpen down the stretch last year. It's possible that his stuff plays best as a reliever (his fastball was averaging close to 95 out of the pen even late in the year last year), but he's only 24 and I think the Pirates will look to give him a chance to start at one point or another. He's likely going to make the team either way since he's out of options. That means that he could take Volquez's rotation spot eventually, if not right off the bat. There's also Jeff Locke, who was awfully good in spots last year if even if he was volatile, and who should be given a chance to prove that he can pitch his way back onto the team. Of course, there might be room for Locke and Volquez is Rodriguez isn't quite ready, and the Pirates have never been afraid of creative DL assignments if Volquez doesn't look quite right in camp. Still, the back end of the rotation is probably the one thing that will affect the team the most in April that hasn't quite been decided yet, and so that's one thing that's very much worth keeping an eye on this spring.
Who will back up Jose Tabata?
At this point, I would assume that Jose Tabata will be the every day right fielder until Gregory Polanco blasts his way down across I-70 and into the outfield. Tabata doesn't have much of a platoon split, and he hit reasonably well after he got healthy in the second half of 2013. I don't have much of a problem putting Tabata in right field every day for three months, if we're being honest. The larger question that looms regards his backup. Tabata has never been able to stay healthy for any significant stretch of time, and that means that his backup is important even if you've got Polanco penciled in on July 1st (which is probably the earliest I'd expect him right now, though things can obviously change). Tabata split time with Travis Snider last year. Snider got off to a decent start in April and early May, but he absolutely fell apart after that. He dealt with a toe injury that probably affected his swing some, but his .549 OPS after May 4th was worrisome enough enough for the Pirates that they went out and traded for Jaff Decker. Decker is still a young guy (24) with a nice approach at the plate, and I'm guessing that in the long-term it'll be between him and Tabata to be the Pirates' fourth outfielder. I won't be surprised to see him on the team instead of Snider.
Can Andrew Lambo play first base?
I understand that Gaby Sanchez is being listed as the every day first baseman by everyone right now, but Gaby Sanchez can't hit right-handed pitching and that's not likely to change. That means that as it stands, Andrew Lambo is the team's primary first baseman against right-handed pitching, and he hasn't played much first base in his career. A trade for Ike Davis or Justin Smoak is sitll possible, and I suppose the club could wait until April 1st to give Kendrys Morales a contract without losing their draft pick, but for now Lambo is the guy. So the question is, how's his glove at first?
Who is Tony Sanchez working with?
I still think that the Chris Stewart trade was one of the more curious moves of the off-season. I understand the value in Stewart's defensive skills, but it seems to me that every indication from the team is that Tony Sanchez is still the starting catcher of the future, and I can't imagine the Pirates leaving the guy they want to start in 2015 in Triple-A for all of 2014. Sanchez mashed the ball in the Black and Gold Game yesterday and he developed a nice working relationship with Francisco Liriano in the second half of the season last year. I think he'll start the season in Indianapolis either way, but I'm curious to see what pitchers they'll have him working with in camp as a way of trying to decide how he fits into the team's plans for 2014.
How does Gregory Polanco look against Major League pitching?
The undercurrent of this whole camp is probably going to be the performance of Gregory Polanco. Polanco spent the winter lighting up the Dominican Winter League and there have already been plenty of stories about his batting practice mashing at Pirate City. All signs point to Polanco being a good Major League player and soon, but the fact remains that he's barely played above Double-A and that while he held his own there last year, he didn't quite dominate. Polanco will probably get some early game at-bats against some decent pitchers this spring; I'm interested to see how he does against them. He's headed to Triple-A to start 2014 either way and I think that that's the right decision, but we will probably get a better indication of his readiness from spring training than from his winter league stats.
And what about Jameson Taillon?
Similar to Polanco, I'm just curious to see how the Pirates use Jameson Taillon this spring. Last year, Gerrit Cole was a part of the regular spring rotation for the first part of spring training even though he had no chance of making the roster. His performances were up and down, but in general there was a sense of inevitablity about his impending arrival when he was demoted to minor league camp last year. I'm less certain of Taillon as a prospect at this point than I was of Cole last year, so I'm just interested to see how the Pirates are using Taillon to get a better feel for what to expect from him this year.
There are a few other undercurrents to think about (Who will be in the bullpen? How's Jason Grilli's elbow? Is Jordy Mercer really a starting shortstop?), but I think these are the big ones to look out for. Francisco Liriano and Ivan Nova will be on the mound at 1:05 today in Tampa. Baseball is almost here.