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Dark-horse candidates vying to make roster

MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' Grapefruit League season begins on Friday, when they travel south to face the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. Before the Bucs take the field in Detroit on Opening Day, Pittsburgh's front office has a handful of decisions to make.

The rotation is seemingly set: Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. The lineup is pretty well set, too, assuming new acquisition Corey Dickerson starts in left field and Josh Harrison isn't traded. That also bolsters the bench, which now includes infielder David Freese, catcher Elias Diaz and super-utility men Sean Rodriguez and Adam Frazier. In the bullpen, lock in Felipe Rivero and George Kontos.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' Grapefruit League season begins on Friday, when they travel south to face the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. Before the Bucs take the field in Detroit on Opening Day, Pittsburgh's front office has a handful of decisions to make.

The rotation is seemingly set: Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. The lineup is pretty well set, too, assuming new acquisition Corey Dickerson starts in left field and Josh Harrison isn't traded. That also bolsters the bench, which now includes infielder David Freese, catcher Elias Diaz and super-utility men Sean Rodriguez and Adam Frazier. In the bullpen, lock in Felipe Rivero and George Kontos.

Pirates acquire All-Star OF Dickerson from Rays

Beyond that, the competition is on. The last bench spot could go to one of the outfielders in camp, or perhaps they'll make room for infielder Max Moroff and use Frazier and Rodriguez in the outfield more frequently. They have about two bullpens' worth of relief options, some of them more experienced than others, and trading Daniel Hudson for Dickerson created yet another opening.

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Before the games begin, let's take a look at a few dark-horse candidates to make the Opening Day roster.

Jordan Luplow Luplow wasn't so much a dark-horse candidate as he was an obvious pick two weeks ago. Since then, the Pirates have acquired Dickerson, signed veteran outfielders Daniel Nava and Michael Saunders to Minor League contracts and traded for Bryce Brentz, a right-handed-hitting corner outfielder with some pop and no Minor League options remaining.

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The Pirates have said Luplow, 24, could benefit from more time in Triple-A after making his Major League debut last season. Without a starting job available, it seems likely they will send him to Indianapolis to receive regular at-bats. But if he shows he's ready to carry last year's Minor League success into the Majors, perhaps he could earn a spot over the more experienced Nava, Saunders and Brentz. If so, he could back up the pair of left-handed-hitting outfielders manning the corner spots.

Jordan Milbrath: Milbrath is a Rule 5 Draft pick, so the Pirates have to put him on the Opening Day roster or run him through waivers, then offer him back to the Indians. (They also could work out a trade with Cleveland to acquire his full rights, allowing them to option him without consequence.)

But what if Milbrath shows his sidearm delivery and high-octane fastball will produce uncomfortable at-bats and outrageous ground-ball numbers like they did in the Minors last season? In that case, the Bucs would have an interesting reliever on their hands.

It's a challenge to keep a Rule 5 Draft pick in the Majors all season, however. And the Pirates have plenty of worthy pitchers who merit a look in the bullpen, including new acquisitions Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick and starters Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault.

Video: Berry on Smoker's chances to make Pirates' bullpen

Josh Smoker: The Pirates clearly liked Smoker enough to acquire him from the Mets. He's a hard-throwing lefty with MLB experience and strikeout stuff, but he'll have to show improved command and cut down on home runs, while remaining flexible enough to pitch in a multi-inning role, if necessary.

It seems more likely the Pirates will make Brault their second lefty reliever out of camp. Smoker has options remaining, so he could be sent down. But what if Brault cracks the rotation or they decide to carry three lefties? Smoker could be the answer.

A.J. Schugel: It's probably not fair to characterize Schugel as a dark horse, but he often feels like the forgotten man in the Pirates' bullpen. That perception isn't entirely fair, as the right-hander owns a 3.00 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 84 innings over 68 appearances for Pittsburgh over the past two seasons.

He does a lot of things the Pirates like. He has MLB experience, can pitch multiple innings, has shown the ability to induce ground-ball outs in tight jams and throws a nasty changeup.

Schugel is also out of options, so the Pirates would risk losing him if they tried to sneak him through waivers. But for Schugel to make the roster, the Pirates would have to prioritize keeping him over giving work to younger pitchers like Crick, Feliz, Brault, Glasnow, Milbrath, Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana. They are probably better equipped to retain him and find spots for those young arms, however, given the vacancy created by Hudson's departure.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

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