Hardest of all for many? Understanding what the Pittsburgh front office has done to arrange for a suitable encore to a 94-win season. General manager Neal Huntington and his crew have had practically the most inactive offseason of any big league front office, shying away from free agents when the price went beyond their comfort level and turning away from trades when the cost bored too deep into their prospects lode.
Thus, assessing the Bucs' winter and projecting their spring is way premature. It's like trying to predict the outcome of a Stephen King movie after the opening credits.
Questions abound. The biggest one may still be, "How proactive will Huntington be between now and Opening Day?" That aside, and as things stand today, here are the leading questions surrounding the '14 Buccos, countdown style:
10. What will the bullpen look like on March 31?
The Pirates are loaded with solid relief arms, and potential trade partners keep trying to talk them out of some of them. In particular, lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson are in tremendous demand. How long before Huntington gives in? The Bucs have been very good at reconfiguring their bullpen from one season to the next, so they may not be gun shy about another major shuffle. With so many teams still looking for a closer, not even a trade of Mark Melancon is out of the question.
9. Is it Jordy Mercer ready for prime time?
After classic nurturing -- mostly watching in 2012, increased responsibility in 2013 -- the binds are coming off Mercer, who can be an offensive force. Much attention was paid to his abuse of left-handers (.410), but the truth is he hit an overall solid .285 in 103 games -- and only two National Leaguers did better in 100-plus games at short (Troy Tulowitzki and Jean Segura). Defensively, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Mercer has great range in both directions.
8. When will the next wave wash ashore?
That next wave is, of course, Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco. The jewels in the farm system are knocking on the door, and a slow start by the Bucs would surely incite a public plea for their promotions. Their itineraries appear to be pretty clear cut: Taillon will retrace the tracks of Gerrit Cole, who debuted last June; and Polanco is on the Sterling Marte timetable. Marte arrived in late July 2012 after solving Triple A.
7. Can Pedro Alvarez stay on the "next level?"
Alvarez tied for the NL lead with 36 homers, but was most impressive while going deep only four times over the last month -- cutting down on his swing with two strikes to deliver clutch hits, often to the opposite field, often off tough lefty relievers. Of course, he carried that into the postseason, driving in a run in each of the Pirates' six games with, as manager Clint Hurdle said, "good at-bat after good at-bat." A terrific development for someone with a track record for inconsistency.
6. Does Jeff Locke have another about-face in him?
The young left-hander's career graph is nuts. Over his first 13 career starts, which included the early part of last season, Locke was 2-7 with an ERA of 5.65 and 75 hits allowed in 66 2/3 innings. Then, he became an All-Star by going 8-1 with an ERA of 1.63 in his next 16 starts, giving up only 59 hits in 99 1/3 innings. Thereafter, over his final 11 starts of 2013, it was back to a 1-5 record and 6.66 ERA in 51 1/3 innings, allowing 69 hits. If Locke can figure things out, he could potentially be a third lefty in the rotation, a tremendous asset in the NL Central.
5. Can the needed offensive boost be an inside job?
The Bucs flourished in '13 despite, not because of, their bat work. They actually scored fewer runs than they had the season before, and only Alvarez noticeably stepped up his game. Even MVP Andrew McCutchen's numbers dipped across the board. A healthy Neil Walker could be the biggest difference-maker. Other than by individual improvements, the Pirates' lineup can be far more dangerous simply by producing a little more with men in scoring position. As has been well-documented, they were only three games worse than the Cardinals despite a 101-point differential in RISP hitting (.229-to-.330).
New batting coach Jeff Branson says it's a matter of pitch selection: "When you sit down in a restaurant, you get to order what you want -- you don't have to settle for what they choose to give you."
4. Can Edinson Volquez be fixed?
The 30-year-old righty fits right in with the Pirates' M.O. (make over). Their small-market restrictions make hitting on bounce-back gambits imperative, just as they did with A.J. Burnett in 2012 and both Francisco Liriano and Melancon last season. Volquez is different: Unlike both Burnett and Liriano, he is not an escapee from the American League. Plus, his salad days date back further (to 2008, when he went 17-6 for Cincinnati). He'll keep pitching's Mad Professor (Jim Benedict) busy in the spring.
3. Counting on Lambo: Leap of faith?
Interestingly, the fans unnerved by the Pirates' inability to acquire a right fielder and/or first baseman are the same ones who last summer clamored for Andrew Lambo as he was powering his way through Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. Yet, the 25-year-old slugger has all along been viewed as a leading fallback option at those positions, first base being a new one he has taken up in winter ball. Lambo has had some commitment issues in the past, but should be on his best behavior with the opportunity being presented to him.
2. What will McCutchen's next act be?
After his 2012 breakthrough, McCutchen dedicated his offseason to improving in the field and on the bases. He indeed was a superior defensive player -- never mind the ironic loss of the Gold Glove he earned in '12 -- and was successful on 27 of 37 steal attempts (compared to 20 of 32 the year before). Refusing to rest on his MVP laurels, McCutchen remains committed to fine-tuning his overall game. A batting title and his first 30-100 season are sensible expectations.
1. Wandy: Pitch or ditch?
Wandy Rodriguez will be the Pirates' highest-paid player (they are on the hook for $7.5 million of his $13 million deal, with the Astros still covering the rest), yet he hasn't thrown a pitch for them since early June. The lefty can wipe out a lot of the question marks surrounding the rotation with a healthy return from forearm arthritis. But club officials were disappointed with his start-and-stop rehabilitation efforts last season, and have to be skeptical about his chances for a full recovery. This is a huge Spring Training project with serious ramifications, and the club may have to eat the contract if Rodriguez doesn't show signs of being able to help.