BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pitchers and catchers don't have to report until Wednesday. They won't hold their first workout until Friday. The full squad doesn't officially convene on the fields of their Pirate City complex until Feb. 23. But make no mistake: Spring Training is here.
A number of Pirates already checked in to their spring home, getting an early start on their preseason preparation. In a little more than six weeks, the Bucs will host the Cardinals at PNC Park, getting the regular season underway. But first, the Pirates must answer a number of key questions.
Some of them are big-picture concerns. Did the Pirates do enough this offseason to keep up with the big-spending Cubs? Have they positioned themselves well enough in an increasingly competitive pack of National League contenders?
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As usual, there will be a few position battles to watch. One spot in the bullpen appears to be up for grabs, and there's no clear front-runner. It could be a bounce-back lefty like Eric O'Flaherty or Cory Luebke; a familiar right-hander like John Holdzkom or Rob Scahill; or perhaps even an unexpected, like Trey Haley or Robert Zarate.
Some questions won't be answered until later. How will their keep-the-lineup-moving offensive plan work out? How will the bullpen roles shake out? And how will manager Clint Hurdle utilize the weapons at his disposal?
Finally, a winter's worth of speculation is over. Now, Pittsburgh can start providing answers. In the sixth part of our Spring Training preview series, let's look at three questions that must be answered in Pirates camp.
1. Can pitching coach Ray Searage work more of his magic?
There are a few sure things on the Pirates' pitching staff: starters Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, relievers Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, among others. But the Pirates are betting heavily on their proven ability to make pitchers better. Some of that improvement comes from pitching in front of Pittsburgh's defense. Much of the rest falls on the coaching staff, especially Searage, who will have his hands full this spring. What can Searage draw out of Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong? How will his work with Jeff Locke pay off? How will he and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas get the most out of relievers Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz?
2. Who's on first?
The answers may be obvious: John Jaso, Michael Morse and perhaps Jason Rogers. But how will Jaso handle the transition to first base after a career spent catching and hitting for a living? The veteran left-handed hitter already is putting in the work at Pirate City, an encouraging sign. Considering Pedro Alvarez struggled historically at first base on a 98-win team last year, it's not as if the season rides on Jaso's glove. But if he turns into an above-average first baseman, the Pirates could assemble a dynamic defensive group from Francisco Cervelli behind the plate to their three athletic outfielders. It's worth keeping an eye on Morse, too, to see if he shows signs of returning to his 2014 form at the plate. That would not only make him a strong platoon partner for Jaso; it also would add a potent bat to the Bucs' bench.
3. How's Jung Ho Kang?
For the second straight spring, Kang might be the most-watched player -- non-Andrew McCutchen division, that is -- at Pirate City. Expect to hear plenty of updates about the infielder's surgically repaired left leg. Every report has been positive thus far, and Kang seems to be in good spirits. On Friday, he uploaded a video to Instagram in which he was fielding ground balls at third base. How is he coming along? Perhaps no question will be asked more this spring than, "Will Kang be ready for Opening Day?" It seemed unlikely in September, when his outstanding rookie season came to an end, but maybe -- for the second straight spring -- he's ready to silence his doubters.