It has occurred to me that The Grandstander has been somewhat silent on the subject of the Pirates this off season, an off season in which the Pirates, I believe, did fairly well for themselves. Well, as the headline mentions, the Bucs' opening Grapefruit League game this afternoon against the Blue Jays will be televised on the MLB Network today, so I suppose it's time to throw out the first (blog) pitch of the season.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing to watch this spring training will be the development and deployment of this guy, Korean League hot shot Jung Ho Kang.
You know the story. The Pirates posted $5 million dollars to the Korean Baseball League just to have the rights to try to sign Kang, and then signed him to a multi-year contract that will pay him another $5 million. (The very idea of the Pirates doing a deal such as this would have been positively unimaginable four or five years ago. Kang may or may not work out for the Pirates, but the team should be applauded for this outside-the-box approach in securing talent for the major league team.) Kang was short stop in Korea and that is where he will begin as a Pirate, but the team also indicated that they will try him out at first, second, and third base during the spring.
This raises the following questions:
- What happens to Jordy Mercer? I can't imagine Mercer losing the SS job, but if he starts out in 2015 like he did in 2014, when he was hitting below .200 one month into the season....
- Was the 2014 performance of Josh Harrison an aberration or the real deal? That is one of the big questions going into this season in my mind, and it seems, the team's as well. If Harrison continues this year as he did last year, great, but if not, the team needs a Plan B, and it obviously isn't Pedro Alvarez at third. Which leads us to perhaps the biggest question of the 2015 season....
- Pedro Alvarez at first base. Can he adapt to the new position? I don't think that that will be the issue. I'm not saying that playing first base in the major leagues is easy, but let's face it, we've all seen a lot of butchers playing the position over the years. The question is, will Pedro return to hitting 30+ home runs and driving in 100+ runs this season. If he can do that, you won't be seeing Jung Ho Kang or any one else with a first baseman's mitt any time soon.
- The signing of Kang also makes it clear that the Pirates do not expect to have Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez after they reach free agent eligibility. That is a topic that deserves an entirely separate Grandstander post some other day.
- And, of course, the biggest question of all: Will the ability that Kang showed in the Korean League (40 HR power, which the Pirates are not expecting) translate to being a solid Major League ball player? As I said, it will be one of the more intriguing stories of spring training and on into the season.
Gone from the team this year are Ike Davis, Gaby Sanchez, and Travis Snyder. New to the team are free agent signees Corey Hart and Sean Rodriguez. Hart will be called upon to spell Alvarez at 1B, and Rodriguez will be an spare infielder and pinch hitter. I believe that these are solid additions to the team. Remember, these guys are being signed as bench players. Five years ago, they would have been signed as starters. How far this team has come.
I believe that Snyder will be missed as the fourth outfielder and a pinch hitter. The outfield of Marte-McCutchen-Polanco is set and could be one of the best in all of MLB, so crying about who will be the fourth outfielder is yet another sign of how far the team has come. That role will be up for grabs and among those competing for it will be Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo. It could be the last time around for each of these guys as far as being Pirates is concerned.
Also missing this year is catcher Russell Martin, and no doubt about it, this is a loss that will be difficult to fill. The team is banking on newly acquired Francisco Cervelli staying healthy for 130-140 games this years, something that Cervelli has never been able to do in his career. There are few questions about the Pirates everyday line-up, but there is no denying that there is a Big Question behind the dish for them.
The biggest question about the Pirates pitching is which one of the six starters - Cole, Liriano, Burnett, Morton, Locke, and Worley - will not make the five man rotation. Nice problem to have.
Lots of reasons to be optimistic about the 2015 Pirates, and it all begins this afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Let's Go Bucs!