What to watch for: 2015 Pirates spring training

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The calendar turned to March and that means that our days will shortly include actual Pittsburgh Pirates spring training baseball games. The Pirates will play their annual black and gold intrasquad game on Monday and then take on the Blue Jays at 1:07 on Tuesday afternoon to get their 2015 exhibition schedule started. This year’s spring campaign doesn’t have as many implications as past years, but there are still things to look out for to try and make the exhibition games seem a bit less meaningless. Here’s what I’ll be watching for this spring.

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1) The 5th starter competition

This is the only real position battle going on this spring, and it’s not a very exciting one at that. Charlie Morton is probably not going to start the year in the rotation, so both Jeff Locke and Vance Worley will be in that initial starting five. However, when Morton is ready to join the club, one of those two names will have to recede into the bullpen. Worley’s numbers were better last year with a 2.85 ERA against Locke’s also impressive 3.91 ERA. Locke has the advantage of being a left hander. If the Pirates were to go with with Worley they would have 4 righties, leaving Francisco Liriano as the lone southpaw in the rotation. Both of these guys will be 27 all season long, so age won’t be a factor. Contract stuff is pretty much irrelevant as the Pirates aren’t paying either of them very much and certainly aren’t going to be needing them much in the future. No matter who wins the position “battle” this spring, you’re going to see both of these guys get starts for the Pirates this year, so it really doesn’t matter too much what happens. For now I’m giving the edge to Locke because of his left-handed dexterity, but again – it’s nothing that’s going to make a big difference on the season.

2) Andrew McCutchen contract talks

There’s been all kinds of talk this week about Andrew McCutchen and a possible contract extension. Obviously, spring training performance has absolutely nothing to do with that, but the Pirates have shown that they like to get contracts done in March. Cutch signed his initial extension in March of 2012, and it’s seemingly an annual event for rumors to come up about Neil Walker and other players around this time. If there’s an extension coming, it’ll probably in the next four weeks.

3) Andrew Lambo fighting for playing time

The starting eight position players are set, but there are a lot of names that will be fighting for priority off the big league bench. Andrew Lambo came in to Bradenton last year with a great shot at a starting job in Pittsburgh and promptly blew it within weeks. This year there’s less pressure on him, as the best he can do is be a backup corner outfielder and the first left handed pinch hitter off the bench. Management definitely still sees some use for Lambo, and rightfully so. He’s still just 26 years old and has hit 44 home runs in 707 at-bats the last two years in the minor leagues. PNC Park favors left handed power hitters, so logically there’s a spot for Lambo there if he can just show some consistency. He’s played some first base in the minors, but the Pirates really only have use for him in right field. If he has even a decent spring, he should be on the bench come Opening Day with his primary role being to spell one of the Pirates big three in the outfield whenever needed.

Cutch signed his initial extension in March of 2012, and it’s seemingly an annual event for rumors to come up about Neil Walker and other players around this time. If there’s an extension coming, it’ll probably in the next four weeks.

4) Corey Hart finding his role

For right now, Corey Hart is part of a platoon at first base with Pedro Alvarez. You have to believe that the Pirates ideally want Alvarez to be an everyday player, but it’s becoming more and more obvious that he’s just not meant for that. Hart hasn’t played much first base in his career (just 12% of his starts have been at that position), but hey, first base is easy right? There’s definitely no room for him in the outfield, and his bat has too much potential to be left off the big league club just because of a minor position discrepancy. He’ll get his cracks against left-handed pitching early in the year and how he performs will dictate how much you see him later in the year. It would be best for him to start hot in spring and put some more pressure on Alvarez, who already has a pretty pressure-packed season ahead of him.

5) Jeong-ho Kang

Kang will get his first look at in-game MLB pitching starting Monday afternoon in the black and gold game at McKechnie field, and we’re fully expecting him to be near the top of the board in terms of spring at-bats. There are a lot of bumps in the road ahead of him and exhibition games are a great time for him to start getting over them. He’ll be a regular in the spring lineup and everyone is excited to see how he looks in this new league. I’m sure he’s feeling a lot of pressure to make a strong impression early on, but he has to know that his spot on the club is not at risk. For what the Pirates paid him, he’s going to be given a long look. He probably won’t dazzle you out of the gate, but scouts expect that raw talent and previous successes to translate into being an above average big league player. It should be fun to see how he gets there.

Unlike previous years, there aren’t too many minor league guys to keep a close eye on. Jameson Taillon is still the big name in camp, but he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and will be seen sparingly in game action this March. Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow will also get some innings in the Pirates uniform, but they are both hoping for mid-summer big league debuts at best.

It’s always exciting to see baseball scores start popping up everyday, and this offseason’s wait has probably been harder to manage for a lot of Pirates fans because of the big expectations this team has in 2015. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a playoff-ready team and it all gets started this week with the beginning of exhibition games. Stay tuned in to Rum Bunter for all the latest news and analysis. Happy March baseball fans!

Next: Rum Bunter Rumblings: Andrew McCutchen Mania

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