PITTSBURGH -- Two weeks out from the start of Spring Training, and there is obviously much on your minds. Let's jump right in ...
Of all the non-roster players invited to Spring Training, which ones probably have the best chance of sticking with the Bucs?
-- John D., Green River, Wyo.
Let's look at the position players first. Depending on whether the Pirates opt to carry three catchers or not, there will be two or three bench spots left to fill. You can already pencil in Ryan Doumit and one of Matt Diaz/Garrett Jones into two of the bench openings. That makes finding some backup infielders the immediate priority.
Corey Wimberly is an intriguing non-roster invite, in my opinion, because he has the versatility to play across the infield and outfield. His speed would be a major asset off the bench, and he has hit well at each Minor League level. Wimberly's chances of making the roster will be directly affected by what the Pirates see in Rule 5 pick Josh Rodriguez.
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It's also looking like the Pirates' backup corner infielder will come out of the non-roster invite list. Garrett Atkins, Josh Fields and Andy Marte are all candidates to win that spot. I might give Atkins the slight edge simply because he has proven himself at the Major League level and has a prior relationship with manager Clint Hurdle.
On the pitching side of things, the Pirates could be poised to add a number of non-roster players by the time Spring Training ends. Joe Beimel, who signed a Minor League deal on Friday, is almost a lock. With so many vacancies in the bullpen, look for Justin Thomas, Fernando Nieve, Sean Gallagher and Jose Veras to make pushes for open spots.
Is Ross Ohlendorf close to settling his arbitration claim with the Pirates?
-- Alan B., Ebensburg, Pa.
Neither side is speaking specifically on the matter, though I can tell you that the preference for both sides is to avoid a hearing. The Pirates have not gone to an arbitration hearing with a player since 2004, but they are running out of time to avoid another one -- hearings begin on Tuesday.
The two sides are $625,000 apart, as Ohlendorf has asked for $2.025 million and the Pirates submitted a $1.4 million offer. That's not a significant gap, but that doesn't necessarily mean an agreement will be reached easily. Where Ohlendorf's salary is set this winter will affect the increases he sees in his subsequent arbitration-eligible years. Such knowledge is not lost on either side, and it makes each party hesitant to budge too much.
My pre-Spring Training question deals with the lineup. In the event that we have Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker as the first three in the lineup again this year, that would mean Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, and Lyle Overbay would be fourth, fifth and sixth, in some order. Against a lefty, that would be three left-handed batters in a row. Would that be a problem? Or would the Pirates just plan on keeping Jones out of the lineup against lefties and throwing Matt Diaz in the middle to break that up?
-- Matt F., Crafton, Pa.
The Pirates signed Diaz to start against left-handers, so you can expect not to see Jones in there when a southpaw is on the mound. As you mentioned, by inserting Diaz into the lineup, the Pirates will avoid a string of left-handed hitters.
To this point, manager Clint Hurdle has sidestepped other questions about a projected lineup. My guess -- and it's only a guess at this point -- is that Alvarez will hit cleanup with Overbay batting fifth and Jones/Diaz hitting sixth. Most everyone expects Alvarez to fit into that fourth spot for many years, and having Overbay right behind Alvarez gives the third baseman protection from a veteran with power. Dropping Jones down to the sixth spot in the order would take some of the pressure off him to be the team's main run producer.
How Hurdle opts to construct his lineup is one of numerous storylines set to play out this spring.
Doesn't the fact that the baseball gurus recently selected only one Pirate in their Top 50 prospects after all the top picks we've had over the last few years say something about what they think of our scouting and player selection?
-- Dan D, Beavercreek, Ohio
The list I believe you're referring to is the one MLB.com revealed last Tuesday. Pitcher Jameson Taillon was the organization's only player to make the cut, and he found himself at No. 18. That's pretty generous placement considering Taillon has yet to make his professional debut.
The Pirates' farm system is certainly still deficient in some areas, but the outlook is better now than it was four years ago. Alvarez's quick climb to the Majors doesn't help farm-system rankings, but it is proof of a successful Draft signing. Tony Sanchez's status was hurt a bit by his jaw injury in 2010, but that doesn't mean he can't still shine. And these "gurus" will have a better idea on how good Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia might be after both make their professional debuts this year.
It looks as if the Pirates have some potential impact pitchers in the system (particularly in the lower levels). Where I think there is more concern is with the lack of top position-player prospects. Outside of Sanchez and Starling Marte, the system appears to be lacking.
Last year I was really excited about the bullpen that the Pirates assembled before the season, but I was really disappointed they didn't get one serious starter in the pitching rotation to build around. My fears proved true. This year, besides Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan, I'm worried about the bullpen. How do you think it compares to last year? Should we be worried?
-- David R., Altoona, Pa.
I think the state of the bullpen is reason for mild concern at this point. The back seems strong with Hanrahan and Meek. The absence of a reliable left-hander was noticeable until the Pirates signed Beimel last week. The club has maintained that it doesn't value a lefty specialist to the same degree other teams do, but there is a need for a left-hander that can be effective. Having different looks out of the 'pen is a must. And to rely on an inexperienced lefty like Daniel Moskos or Tony Watson to play a key role would have been risky.
If Meek and Hanrahan are going to be assets late in game, the Pirates must have relievers capable of covering those middle innings. Beimel and Chris Resop could be two guys that step up in a big way. But the Pirates still have holes to fill. The competition will be deep, but the question is whether the options will be good enough.
What do you think of Charlie Morton coming out of the bullpen?
-- Jon C., Lawrence, Mass.
While the Pirates are going to give Morton every chance to make the starting rotation, the club is ready to consider him for the bullpen as a fallback option. A large reason for that is because Morton is out of options and cannot be sent to the Minors without being exposed to other clubs on waivers. So if Scott Olsen wins the job as the team's fifth starter, expect Morton to be fighting for one of the open spots in the 'pen.
Resop was a nice pickup last year, and he looked solid out of the 'pen. Considering his success at the Triple-A level as a starter last season, has there been any consideration to giving Resop a shot at winning a spot in the rotation as the fifth starter this season?
-- Todd S., Atlanta
Though Resop has spent much of his career as a starter, the Pirates need him to fill a bullpen role. The hope is that there are enough starting options for the club to put together a solid rotation. The bullpen, though, still has a lot of holes. If Resop can pitch as he did with the Pirates last year, he will be a valuable relief asset. That's where the need is right now.