With the Pirates having added little talent during the off-season, their best chance for upgrades will come from Indianapolis. The focus there, of course, will be on the team's two top prospects, OF Gregory Polanco and RHP Jameson Taillon. At least they hope Taillon will be at Indianapolis. He's currently out of action due to elbow soreness. An MRI showed the elbow to be fully sound, so he's not expected to need surgery, but he's seeking a second opinion as a precaution.
Beyond those two, Indy's roster will be almost entirely comprised of players who realistically could be called upon to play for the Pirates. Quite a few of the hitters were regarded in the past as having significant upside and most still hold some promise. The pitching staff should afford the Pirates both potential upgrades and plenty of depth options, even if they have to go well beyond their own opening day roster as they did in 2013.
Catcher: The opening day roster will have Nevin Ashley and Carlos Paulino. Once Chris Stewart returns from knee surgery, though, the regular catcher will be Tony Sanchez, with Paulino possibly going to Altoona. Neither of the opening day catchers has any major league experience. Ashley has, however, shown modest hitting ability and has a good arm. Paulino hasn't hit much the last two years but is a premium defender. Also available, but not on the roster, is Omir Santos, who played semi-regularly for the Mets in 2009. It's unclear whether the Pirates would be comfortable with any of these options, besides Sanchez, should a need arise in the majors.
Infield: The primary interest the Indy infield figures to generate lies in whether Andrew Lambo or Chris McGuiness can provide a left-handed first base alternative to Travis Ishikawa, who's likely to struggle to provide replacement level offense for the Pirates. Lambo put up big power numbers in the second half in AAA last year, but with dubious command of the strike zone. McGuiness has seldom put up first-base-worthy power numbers, but he's a solid hitter otherwise. Lambo will probably get the bulk of the playing time at first for Indy. The third baseman most of the time will be recent acquisition Brent Morel, whose main role is probably Pedro Alvarez injury insurance. Long time mainstay Matt Hague may have to settle for backup duties at both positions.
The regular middle infield will probably be veterans Robert Andino and Michael Martinez, possibly alternating between positions. Andino has a good glove and weak bat, while Martinez was an amazingly bad hitter during his time as a utility player in Philadelphia. It'd be unfortunate if the Pirates had to call on either. Another minor league veteran, Blake Davis, will be available as a backup, but he isn't on the opening day roster. Chase d'Arnaud could also see time in the middle infield, but after being dropped from the Pirates' 40-man roster he played exclusively in center in minor league exhibitions. If things go well, Alen Hanson could be a mid-season promotion candidate, which would give the middle infield a decidedly different complexion.
Outfield: The marquee player obviously is Polanco, who'll man right field in preparation for his anticipated arrival in Pittsburgh. He probably needs no introduction. The rest of the outfield will be Chris Dickerson, in center, and Jaff Decker. That's more than the usual upside for a AAA outfield, even apart from Polanco. Dickerson is an outstanding defensive player, although he struggles with the strike zone, and Decker was considered a very good hitting prospect just a couple years ago. D'Arnaud and Adalberto Santos will be available to back up. Santos has a very good hit tool, but lacks power or a position.
Rotation: Even with Taillon temporarily sidelined, Indianapolis should be in a good position to provide starting depth, something the Pirates needed repeatedly last year. With several starters apart from Taillon coming back from injuries, the Indians' rotation will probably undergo changes during the year even without callups. Initially, Brandon Cumpton will probably be the go-to guy if the team needs a starter. He showed last year he could succeed in the majors. Once Jeff Locke returns from the disabled list after missing part of spring training with an oblique injury, he'll probably move to the top of the depth chart. Phil Irwin could also become an option once he shows he's recovered from nerve transposition surgery. Casey Sadler, coming off a good season in AA, could be an option later in the year.
Depending on the health of Taillon, Locke and Irwin, either or both of Vance Worley and Adam Wilk could fill out the rotation. Worley, who's not on the opening day roster, needs to bounce back from various arm problems that have accompanied a downhill slide since his impressive rookie season with the Phillies. Wilk is a soft-tossing left-hander who pitched well in spring training. Another minor league veteran, former Cubs' prospect Jay Jackson, could be a rotation option, as he pitched well at times in the spring. The Pirates could also give Andy Oliver another chance to find the strike zone as a starter. Kyle McPherson should join the rotation eventually, as he's expected back from Tommy John surgery over the summer, but he isn't likely to be an option at the major league level this year. The Pirates will also hope that Nick Kingham earns a promotion to AAA at some point.
Bullpen: The Indy bullpen will feature a good assortment of pitchers trying to reach their upsides and solid depth types. The most likely callup candidate is Jared Hughes, who's pitched well at times for the Pirates and should be a capable middle reliever. The re-acquired Duke Welker has late-inning upside, but did not have a good spring. Former top prospect Dan Schlereth is another lefty trying to harness excellent stuff. Josh Kinney and sidearmer Cody Eppley pitched well for the Cardinals and Yankees, respectively, in 2012, although neither is currently on the Indy roster. Zach Thornton put up big numbers at several levels in the Pirates' system last year. Former Texas prospect Jake Brigham pitched much better as a reliever in AAA last year, although he could start if needed. Finally, 31-year-old Taiwanese lefty Yao-Hsun Yang could be a wild card, although he also is not on the roster.
Indianapolis should be a AAA juggernaut. The Indians have a lot of hitters who've proven themselves at the level, the only question question being whether they can produce in the majors. The pitching staff is very deep, including some potentially solid pitchers who aren't even on the roster at this point. And this is with Taillon, Locke and Sanchez not even available yet.
C: Nevin Ashley (later Tony Sanchez)
1B/DH: Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuiness
2B/SS: Robert Andino, Michael Martinez
3B: Brent Morel
OF: Gregory Polanco, Jaff Decker, Chris Dickerson
Starters: Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, Casey Sadler, Adam Wilk, Jake Brigham/Jay Jackson (later Jeff Locke and Jameson Taillon)
Key Relievers: Jared Hughes, Duke Welker, Zach Thornton, Dan Schlereth
Top Prospects: Polanco, Taillon