With Spring Training nearly upon us, here are five storylines to watch in Bradenton this year.
1. If Liriano can't go, then what? The Pirates still don't know what they're getting from new signee Francisco Liriano, which is why they haven't even, well, officially signed him yet. It remains unclear how his broken non-pitching arm will affect him, but it looks like he probably won't be ready by Opening Day. If he isn't, the Pirates' fifth starter job will also come down to Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson (who's also coming off an injury), and perhaps a Wild Card in Jonathan Sanchez (or -- gulp -- Jeanmar Gomez). The smart money is on Locke to break camp as a member of the rotation, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. He may not be a world-beater, but his Triple-A stats show he deserves an opportunity. McPherson's lack of Triple-A experience will likely weigh against him, assuming he's healthy.
2. 1B/RF logjam! You know what would be funny? If we turned the comment thread into a semantic debate about the meaning of the word "logjam"! Then you could be like, "If Jose Tabata is part of a logjam, then it isn't really a logjam, is it?" And then somebody else could be like, "Hey, remember when Alex Rodriguez was having one of the greatest seasons in modern baseball history, and people actually argued that Shannon Stewart should be MVP, because of the definition of the word 'value?'" And then somebody else could be like, "I love arguing about definitions of words!" And then somebody else could be like, "That's only because A-Rod took 'roids!" And then I could be like, "Excuse me, I'm going to go to the garage to smash nails through my thumbs." And then somebody else could be like, "I predict Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez will platoon at first, Jerry Sands and Travis Snider will split time in the outfield, Alex Presley and Clint Robinson will wind up at Indianapolis, and the Pirates will place Tabata, who is out of options but has an annoying contract, on waivers." And then like 18 people could be like, "+1 for putting us back on topic!" And then someone else could be like, "But what about Brad Hawpe?" And then we'd all feel really sad.
3. Which Pedro Alvarez will we get? We all know that Spring Training stats Don't Mean Anything, but it's hard to dismiss the fact that Alvarez had just about the worst Spring Training in the history of Florida last season and then carried his struggles into the regular season, where he had a .402 OPS as of April 24. He was, of course, hardly the only Pirate hitter to struggle in April. But it would be a huge help for the Pirates if Alvarez, in particular, could get into a rhythm a little earlier in the year.
4. Gerrit Cole, people. Cole was invited to major-league Spring Training in 2012, but he hadn't even pitched in the minors yet, and the Pirates sent him to minor-league camp in early March. That won't happen this year. Cole finished last season with a start at Triple-A, so he's awfully close to contributing in the majors. What he does in Spring Training probably won't tell us much about exactly how close he is, but at least we'll get to watch him pitch from the comfort of our living rooms. Personally, I'm getting excited to see him pitch in Columbus in early April.
5. The bullpen. After the trades of Joel Hanrahan and Chris Resop, the Pirates' bullpen is in the midst of a makeover. Jason Grilli will close, and Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and newcomer Mark Melancon will almost certainly get spots behind him. That leaves three spots, assuming the Pirates are done making moves. Bryan Morris, who's out of options, will probably get one, and Vin Mazzaro, who's also out of options, may take another. After that, look out for Justin Wilson and perhaps Jonathan Sanchez and Mike Zagurski, all three of whom struggle with their control, to vie for the second lefty job, if the Pirates choose to go that direction. If not, Jeanmar Gomez and Chris Leroux are also out of options, and sinker-baller Kyle Waldrop might be a remote possibility as well.