Inbox: Kang's spring, Garth's camp are hot topics

March 4th, 2019

Who or what, if anything, has caught your eye in a good way this spring?

– Jeffrey S., Pittsburgh

At the risk of being a downer: It’s Spring Training. It’s early in Spring Training. I would not jump to any definitive conclusions 10 days into the regular season, much less the Grapefruit League season. What happens in Bradenton often stays in Bradenton.

But there are things that catch your attention, for sure, so here are a few …

looks good. He’s hit three homers, which is certainly not a bad sign, but I mean he looks good physically. He’s been agile and smooth at third base. The ball still seems to jump off his bat. He might be in better shape now than he was in 2016, when he was coming off major knee surgery, and he hit 21 homers with an .867 OPS in 103 games that season.

Will that translate to success once the regular season begins? Who knows. Kang might be rusty after missing most of the last two years. He also might be the most powerful bat in the Pirates’ lineup.

It’s probably hard to get excited from afar about hitting coaches, but the Pirates seem to be moving in the right direction under Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz. We’ve seen a Rapsodo unit during batting practice and more technology (like the K-Vest) that provides instant feedback in the cage. They’re analytically savvy, and they seem to work well with hitters on a personal level. If they can get more out of the Pirates’ returning players, especially Josh Bell, they could run out an interesting lineup even if they are seemingly devoid of star power.

has been hitting in batting practice since January, and he started sliding drills last week. If his surgically repaired shoulder can handle the stress of throwing, he could anchor the lineup like he did for a stretch last season -- and he might be back closer to late April than June. (One can’t help but wonder if he’d be ready on Opening Day if the National League had a full-time designated hitter …)

In terms of prospects, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Jason Martin have stood out. We’ve heard so much about Hayes’ incredible defense at third base, but his bat really does seem to be catching up to his glove as he gets older and stronger. Martin, who struggled in his first taste of Triple-A after dominating Double-A last season, has shown power and speed while playing left and center field. I’ve also heard good things about right-hander JT Brubaker, the Pirates’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2018, and the word that keeps coming up is “polished.”

Pablo Reyes is getting a legitimate chance to make this roster as a super-utility player after his strong September, and he’s done nothing to hurt his cause.

Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela dominated in their first game action. That’s no surprise, but they’re so important to Pittsburgh’s hopes this year. They need to lock down wins starting right from Opening Day.

Maybe the most important thing: The top four starting pitchers are healthy.

Where has been?!

– Everyone

I have rarely seen such concern over someone’s playing time in February. Frazier is fine. So is . So is . So is .

The Pirates are proceeding cautiously with players who have jobs secured, including Frazier. , , and have been pitching in simulated games -- with umpires and live hitters -- rather than in Grapefruit League games. (That will change on Tuesday, when Archer starts against the Orioles.) Their top-four bullpen arms are also being eased into action.

It seems like a smart approach. Those guys don’t have to win a job, they need to get ready for a long season. They might even have specific things they want to work on, and you can’t ask the Yankees to set up those situations -- but you can do it yourself in a controlled environment at Pirate City. There’s no reason to wear them down in Spring Training, either. Make sure they get the work they require and get everyone to Opening Day healthy.

What should be our level of concern about ?

– Aaron L., Pittsburgh

The only information we know is that he’s been out of camp for more than a week due to a virus of some sort, and as of last Wednesday’s update he was being treated and evaluated by the Pirates’ medical staff in Bradenton.

The baseball repercussion is that Diaz likely won’t be on the Opening Day roster because, even if he returns tomorrow, he’ll need time to get back into game shape and progress through a modified Spring Training program. The more important thing, obviously, is just that Diaz returns to full health.

What did you make of the whole Garth Brooks thing? Cool or distraction?

– Jake D., Morgantown, W.V.

I can be a little cynical, as most journalists are, so I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when I saw his locker set up at Pirate City. But honestly, it was pretty cool.

Nobody should knock a guy helping children’s charities, and Brooks kept the focus on his Teammates For Kids Foundation. It was neat to hear him talk about his admiration for Roberto Clemente -- he even remembered Clemente’s name being anglicized as “Bob” on the baseball cards he owned -- and how Clemente’s legacy led him to give back.

The Pirates seemed to enjoy having him around, too. He left before games started, so it’s not like he took playing time away from anyone. You can’t help but listen to someone that successful, and he was a genuinely positive presence despite his level of celebrity.

He took part in Spring Training drills to the best of his ability, and he had a good sense of humor. He also took what Dickerson politely called “crap” -- like people calling him Chris Stapleton, or Dickerson saying Brooks shouldn’t take BP after him because it’d be like Brooks serving as Dickerson’s opening act in concert.