Bucs enter spring with many questions to answer

Coming off 94-win season, Pirates will have competition for jobs at several spots

Bucs enter spring with many questions to answer

In an earlier era, Spring Training was a time for players to get into shape and to compete for jobs. Year-round conditioning and the lucrative long-term contracts that afford that dedication changed the plot. Most teams now open camp with rosters largely set, and they spend six weeks tweaking and creating anticipation for the season.

So the Pirates are about to embark on Throwback Training, turning Pirate City and Grapefruit League games into outdoor laboratories. Yes, the solid core of the team is predictable, but camp developments in the coming weeks will answer the widespread unease over the Bucs' quiet offseason.

The perceived holes at first base and right field? A.J. Burnett's whereabouts? The conditions of three other rehabilitating starting pitchers? Either the answers will come in-house or general manager Neal Huntington will roll up his sleeves and hit the road for alternatives.

Speaking of changed plots … the Pirates' tide has certainly turned. For 20 years, they had to be obsessed with merely an 82nd win. Now, they intend to go beyond last season's 94 wins and National League Division Series appearance.

Many are skeptical. How does the offseason math -- adding Edinson Volquez and Chris Stewart, subtracting Garrett Jones, Michael McKenry, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and maybe Burnett -- equate to putting your money where your mouth is? Did the Bucs miss an opportunity to keep their foot on the NL Central's throat?

But one way to evaluate Pittsburgh's offseason is within the context of its division. In 2013, the NL Central was MLB's best, claiming three of the five NL teams with 90-plus wins. The bar appears to have been lowered a bit.

Folks in St. Louis and Cincinnati, in fact, could be as antsy about their teams' offseason work. The Cardinals lost Carlos Beltran, David Freese and their closer most of the season, Edward Mujica, while gaining Peter Bourjos and Jhonny Peralta. The Reds lost Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo without experienced replacements for either.

So, it remains a fair fight. The Pirates are about to enter the ring.

Pitchers and catchers report

Wednesday

Full squad reports

February 17

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Yankees, Feb. 26, 1:05 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Home vs. Cubs, March 31, 1:05 p.m. ET

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. What will the rotation look like?
There is an awful lot of smoke around the three locks: righties Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton and lefty Francisco Liriano. Wandy Rodriguez is trying to return from injury, Volquez is attempting to return from near oblivion, and Jeff Locke is hoping to bounce back from a second-half meltdown.

2. When will the future arrive?
Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon … Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco. It's all we heard about all winter, the absence of player moves only intensifying the focus on the Bucs' top two prospects. Does that inaction also put them on a faster track to the Majors? Even with the NL MVP Award winner (Andrew McCutchen) and NL co-homer king (Pedro Alvarez) around, these two elite prospects will be the most watched players in camp.

3. Two questions, one answer?
And is his name Andrew Lambo? He is a right fielder by trade, a new first baseman by training, so he could be the missing piece at either spot. The 25-year-old lefty slugger has a golden opportunity to finally make his mark. Lambo struck 32 homers last season between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, and he left a darn good last impression: On the penultimate day of the season, Lambo smoked a tape-measure job out of Great American Ball Park for his first Major League homer.

2013 record
94-68, second in the NL Central (No. 1 NL Wild Card)

Projected batting order
1. LF Starling Marte:
.280 BA, .343 OBP, .441 SLG, 12 HR, 35 RBI in 2013
2. 2B Neil Walker:
.251 BA, .339 OBP, .418 SLG, 16 HR, 53 RBI in 2013
3. CF Andrew McCutchen:
.317 BA, .404 OBP, .508 SLG, 21 HR, 84 RBI in 2013
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez:
.233 BA, .296 OBP, .473 SLG, 36 HR, 100 RBI in 2013
5. 1B Gaby Sanchez:
.254 BA, .361 OBP, .402 SLG, 7 HR, 36 RBI in 2013
6. C Russell Martin:
.226 BA, .327 OBP, .377 SLG, 15 HR, 55 RBI in 2013
7. RF Travis Snider:
.215 BA, .281 OBP, .333 SLG, 5 HR, 25 RBI in 2013
8. SS Jordy Mercer:
.285 BA, .336 OBP, .435 SLG, 8 HR, 27 RBI in 2013

Projected rotation
1. Francisco Liriano, 16-8, 3.02 ERA in 2013
2. Gerrit Cole,10-7, 3.22 ERA in 2013
3. Charlie Morton, 7-4, 3.26 ERA in 2013
4. Edinson Volquez, 9-12, 5.71 ERA in 2013
5. Jeff Locke, 10-7, 3.52 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jason Grilli, 33/35 saves, 2.70 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Mark Melancon, 1.39 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Justin Wilson, 2.08 ERA in 2013

The new guys
Volquez: In their ongoing mission to rehabilitate pitchers, the Pirates bit off a big one this time. Two years ago, Volquez led the NL in walks. Last season, he had the league's highest starter's ERA. Whatever has worked with Burnett, Melancon and Liriano, Pittsburgh hopes will work with Volquez, who still has the time (he's 30) and the raw stuff to get it back.

C Chris Stewart: Whenever Martin needed a blow last season, the Bucs fell into a defensive funk with McKenry (teams stole on him 35 times in 41 tries). Stewart has a quieter bat, but an arm and mitt that sufficed to make him the Yankees' primary catcher in 2013.

1B Chris McGuiness: Acquired from Texas (for Miles Mikolas, a righty reliever acquired earlier in the offseason from San Diego), the 26-year-old South Carolinian will be one of no fewer than six left-handed hitters in camp looking to claim some platoon time with Sanchez at first base. But of them, he is the only first baseman on the 40-man roster. That gives McGuiness a bit of an edge, but it won't last long without performance.

OF Jaff Decker: Like McGuiness, Decker amassed around 2,000 Minor League plate appearances before finally making his big league debut last June. Right now, Decker is best known as the guy who pushed out Jones -- the popular G.I. guy was designated for assignment when Decker was acquired in a trade from the Padres. He's a scrapper with speed, a slashing swing and full-body defense. Think: a stockier Alex Presley.

Prospects to watch
Polanco: Let the unveiling begin. The MVP of the Dominican Winter League gets to rub elbows with his future teammates for the first time. Of the many reasons to get excited about the multitalented 22-year-old, this is a pretty good one: 78 Minor League steals over the past two years.

Top Pirates Prospects
Pirates on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list:
Rank Name Pos.
13 Gregory Polanco OF
16 Jameson Taillon RHP
27 Tyler Glasnow RHP
45 Austin Meadows OF
67 Alen Hanson SS
74 Josh Bell OF

Taillon: The No. 2 overall Draft pick in 2010 will get his first extended Spring Training look. He was also in camp on a non-roster invite last year, but ducked out to pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Is he on the brink? Remember, Cole came into camp a year ago as a non-roster invitee, too.

SS Alen Hanson: He has so much to learn, both in the field and on the bases. But Hanson has an abundance of raw talent. A big item on the agenda is to see how he handles second base, where he has only dabbled during his Minor League ascension.

RHP Zack Thornton: In the Pirates' cadre of big relief arms, Thornton is one of the biggest. Not only does the 6-foot-3, 215-pound righty throw the ball hard, he knows where it's going. Witness his 90-to-12 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 75 1/3 innings last season (31-to-4 in Triple-A).

On the rebound
Rodriguez: The forearm on the forefront. From a strain to an eventual diagnosis of arthritis, Rodriguez hasn't thrown a big league pitch since early June. The Bucs are trying not to count on a full return, but they know it would be a difference maker.

Snider: No one else knows how much that left big toe hurt and for how long, until it finally landed Snider on the DL and on an offseason operating table. If healthy, Snider could regularly showcase the offensive and defensive talents he has occasionally flashed.

RHP Jared Hughes: He had performance issues, too, but those could've been related to right shoulder inflammation that eventually landed him on the DL for two months. One of the NL's top rookie relievers of 2012 could again be a big factor.

Long gone
Burnett: He can probably be replaced on the mound. But in the clubhouse? Less likely, with the two veterans in the rotation the introverted Liriano and Rodriguez.

Jones: After 677 games (only McCutchen had played in more among the current Pirates) and 100 home runs, he became a payroll sacrifice. Oddly, Pittsburgh is now on the hunt for someone who can do exactly what he did -- be the lefty hitter in a platoon at first base/right field.

McKenry: Another extremely popular, hard-working but physically limited player from whom the Pirates have moved beyond. In relation to his playing time, The Fort had more big hits than anyone for the Bucs the past two seasons.

Byrd: He made a tremendous impact in his one month with the Pirates. That was also the bad news -- the performance putting him in line for a huge raise (from the Phillies) the Bucs weren't willing to cover.

Morneau: The truth is, Colorado's hitting environment will probably make Pittsburgh look bad for letting him go. Also true is the Pirates had no intention to keep him after his soft month as their everyday first baseman.

C John Buck: Yes, he really was a Pirate, the third stretch-drive pickup as veteran support for Martin, but Buck rarely left the bench.

RHP Jeff Karstens: His year-long absence with shoulder inflammation summed up his bittersweet Bucs tenure -- credible when able (14-13 with a 3.59 ERA in 2011-12) but not able often enough (41 starts those two seasons).

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.