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Decisions loom for Pirates as Opening Day nears

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington could be excused if they awoke in a cold sweat Wednesday morning.

The realization that they were 12 days, and nine games, from Opening Day could be unsettling. There are still 43 players in the Major League camp. But the "problem" isn't quantity, but the quality that renders several looming decisions as arduous.

Those final dozen preseason days will be extremely busy for Huntington, who doubtless is in conversation with multiple teams about deals that could ease some of the congestion in his camp.

Some tough calls -- such as having more deserving candidates than vacancies on the pitching staff -- could be foreseen. Others may have blindsided the staff, which, obviously, calls them "good problems to have."

For instance, Ivan De Jesus' solid play -- nine hits in his last 19 at-bats have lifted his average to .400 -- is complicating the battle for two reserve infielder spots. Incumbents Jordy Mercer (.368) and Josh Harrison (.286) have also been productive -- and the latter has also dazzled with the glove.

Brandon Inge, the sentimental favorite entering Spring Training, has not yet been a factor.

The outfield crunch appeared somewhat eased when Jose Tabata, who'd gotten off to a torrid start, cooled. Tabata, however, may still have the inside track to one of two backup jobs because the three other prime candidates are all left-handed hitters.

Good luck choosing there, since all three are performing well: Alex Presley (.297) has provided the spark atop the lineup that he couldn't last season, Felix Pie (.281) also adds speed in the field and Brad Hawpe has a clock ticking toward a March 24 opt-out clause.

Hawpe's performance has not been compelling -- five hits and 15 strikeouts in 32 at-bats -- but his swing still is. His experience would make him the ideal man to bring off the bench when the Pirates need a long ball; however, there is little room for such a specialist on a modern 25-man roster squeezed by a 12-man pitching staff.

Hawpe does have a long home run -- but Pie has two of them, and also shares the team lead with seven RBIs.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
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