Questions remain as Bucs hit spring midpoint

Questions remain as Bucs hit spring midpoint

Questions remain as Bucs hit spring midpoint
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates are nearly a month into Spring Training, which, of course, means that Opening Day sits only three weeks away. And with 58 players remaining in camp, there is guaranteed to be plenty of news emerging from camp as April 1 approaches.

Obvious already is the unique stamp that manager Clint Hurdle has put on his new club. He has made changes to certain workout drills and has maintained a more visible clubhouse presence than his predecessor.

The club is just one win shy of already matching its win total (seven) from last year's entire Spring Training schedule -- and that is with 20 games still remaining.

In addition, the Pirates are fortunate to have so far avoided the injury bug that has plagued other National League Central clubs. While the Cardinals are moving on without Adam Wainwright and the Brewers are preparing to start their season without Zack Greinke, the Pirates have had nothing more than minor setbacks.

Here's a snapshot at questions that were answered by Spring Training's midway point and a closer look at those that still remain:

What we've learned:

• Yes, Pedro Alvarez added some muscle to his frame over the offseason. But all those early concerns about him coming into camp out of shape were blown entirely out of proportion. Alvarez knows he is going to have to fight his body composition to stay at third base, but he is working exceptionally hard to hush his critics. Alvarez has looked as good at the plate as anyone on the team to this point.

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"Honestly, I just go out there and play," Alvarez said. "I play to get better. I don't read media. I only become aware of it when asked in interviews and what not. All I know is that I am a third baseman and that's what I'm working for. That's where I am working to stay for the rest of my career."

• Hurdle is going to hold this club to high standards when it comes to being aggressive on the basepaths. No club in the Grapefruit League has attempted more steals than Pittsburgh, which was 18-for-26 in those attempts through Wednesday. Hurdle is also pushing players to test moving from first-to-third on singles, stretching singles to two-base hits and advancing 90 feet on balls in the dirt.

"You've got to encourage them to go," Hurdle said. "When the season comes, they'll probably need a little more encouragement, because in their minds there might be a little more at stake. But one thing we have to do is utilize the skill sets we have with the personnel we have."

• Joel Hanrahan will be taking the ball in the ninth inning. The Pirates waited just three days into camp to announce that Hanrahan would take over as the team's closer. Evan Meek will be the Pirates' primary setup man.

"Those last three outs are the most important outs in the game," Hanrahan said. "You have to go out there with the mindset that you have three outs to get, and let's get it done and go home."

What to watch:

• The Pirates must determine how Scott Olsen fits into their immediate plans. A hamstring injury put Olsen behind schedule, and he has not yet pitched in a game. That first appearance should be coming soon, but Olsen might not be able to build up his arm enough to be ready to start out of the gate. In the meantime, Charlie Morton is making a strong case for the fifth spot in the rotation.

"I think there's still time for [Olsen] to get involved," Hurdle said. "If he can stay healthy on the mound, he can push this thing through."

• The Ryan Doumit trade watch continues. The Pirates have yet to pull a trigger on a deal that would send Doumit elsewhere, though a trade could still happen before Opening Day. If Doumit stays with the team, the Pirates must decide whether to slot him into a traditional backup catcher role or keep him available off the bench by carrying a third catcher.

"[Trade] conversation continue to go on on all fronts," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We keep trying to puzzle the bench together and figure out how they are all going to fit."

• Hurdle hasn't committed to a lineup yet, nor has he named an Opening Day starter. While battles for the last few bench and bullpen spots will remain a focus during the final weeks of camp, these are two decisions that are critical, too. The biggest question is whether Andrew McCutchen will hit first or third.

"I think we need to look at ways to become more diverse and more dynamic and score more runs than we did last year," Hurdle said. "I do believe [McCutchen] has the skill set, the tool set, to hit third in the lineup. We'll see how it plays out."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.