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4 Pirates storylines to watch this spring

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Pittsburgh Pirates Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Pirates baseball is less than three days away with the team set to kick off Grapefruit League action against the Rays on Saturday. It will be the first time fans have an opportunity to see the new outfield alignment, but unfortunately, it will be nothing more than a glimpse, since Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are all slated to play in the World Baseball Classic from March 6 through 22.

With that in mind, here are a few other storylines Pittsburgh fans should keep an eye on over the next few weeks.

Jung Ho Kang’s Legal Situation

As the Pirates continue their work this spring, the team remains without Jung Ho Kang, who appeared in a South Korean court yesterday facing charges for his December DUI arrest. It is unlikely Kang will see any jail time with the prosecution merely seeking a hefty fine, but the official ruling will not be revealed until March 3. Either way, Pirates brass were anxious enough about the potential legal ramifications of a third DUI charge that they acquired Phil Gosselin earlier this month.

David Freese can cover the hot corner. But the Pirates would prefer Freese as the primary option off the bench or as insurance at first should Josh Bell need to ease into things or continue to struggle defensively. This means, barring a speedy resolution and acquisition of a work visa, Adam Frazier and John Jaso will see extra duty both this spring and in April, likely making Alen Hanson and Gosselin as the top options off the bench.

If Kang’s return is delayed to the point he needs a couple of weeks in extended spring training/minors and Bell is also not ready, it opens up a spot on the Pirates’ bench for one of the players currently on the team’s 40 man roster (Max Moroff, Chris Bostick, Jose Osuna, Gift Ngoepe) or maybe even a non-roster invitee.

Players returning from injury

Gerrit Cole

Cole had a late start to Spring Training in 2016 because of rib inflammation, kicking off what turned out to be an injury-riddled season. In mid June, a strained tricep cost the Pirates’ ace more than a month before the always-dreaded elbow soreness ultimately cut his season short in September.

After some rest, Cole spent the winter training in Los Angeles and by all accounts, reported to camp with a clean bill of health. He tossed a couple innings of batting practice without issue earlier this week, but even if things are trending in the right direction, it always worth monitoring a pitcher fresh off of elbow inflammation.

Josh Bell

Since Bell is one of the guys who could have most benefited from work this spring, it is a real shame that he required a minor knee procedure earlier this month. The quick projected recovery time, two to four weeks, is encouraging, but knee surgeries should never be taken lightly, especially for a player with a past knee issues.

According to Rob Biertempfel, Bell was able to take live batting practice for the first time Wednesday, so hopefully he’ll get some quality Grapefruit League action as he tries to prove he can handle the defensive demands of first base.

Nick Kingham

This spring Nick Kingham continues his return from Tommy John surgery after managing just 10 starts in the minors last season. Expect the team to be every bit as cautious with him as they were with Jameson Taillon in his recovery, so there’s little to no chance he’ll break camp with the big league club. Hopefully, Kingham can demonstrate the same level of talent and the arsenal that once earned him a place on lists of the game’s top 100 prospects.

Francisco Cervelli

Discomfort in his foot forced him out of practice on Sunday, but both Cervelli and the Pirates are suggesting it’s nothing serious and quite possibly just related to an insole in Cervelli’s cleats. As of yesterday, he had been cleared for “modified baseball activities.”

Prospect Development

One of the more exciting aspects of Spring Training is the opportunity to see how a handful of the team’s upper-level prospects fare against big-league competition, and it will be no different this year with Kevin Newman, Austin Meadows, and a few others at camp as non-roster invitees. It’s unlikely there’s room for any of them on the big-league squad, but a strong spring coupled with early-season success in the minors could give the organization more confidence when a need arises in Pittsburgh.

Additionally, Tyler Glasnow is in the mix for a rotation spot after a less-than-stellar debut season, but he needs to demonstrate proficiency with a third offering. By throwing just 13 changeups, Glasnow plus fastball and curveball became fairly predictable for opposing hitters. He’s reportedly altered the grip on his changeup to avoid the same pitfall, so look for that to be an emphasis this spring if he has any hope of securing a rotation spot.

For another Pirates prospect, Alen Hanson, who is now out of minor league options, this is a a make-or-break season. Pirates Prospects reported that Clint Hurdle has had Hanson take a fair amount of work at shortstop, his natural position, saying, “We're going to move him around. We're going to even ask what might be there at shortstop. There's an opportunity for him to be the super U that J-Hay was in 2014.” Even if he’s unlikely to surpass Frazier as the first middle infielder off the bench, he could carve out a role with a strong showing this spring.

Competition for the last rotation spot

After being linked to Jose Quintana and Jake Odorizzi this winter, the Pirates will instead turn to internal options to round out the rotation behind Cole, Taillon and Nova. Chad Kuhl is the likely and logical choice for the fourth slot after posting a 3.77 ERA, 18.8 K%, and 6.3 BB% line in 57 innings after the break, which leaves the fifth spot open for one of Drew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, or Trevor Williams.

With a $2.3 million salary for 2017, the team has extra motivation to give Hutchison a chance rather than utilizing his final minor league option. He is, after all, only 26 and boasts solid strikeout-to-walk ratios.

There’s little doubt Glasnow would be the higher upside starter, but as was previously mentioned, he needs to work on developing his changeup, and the front office may ultimately prefer he do in that minors.

While Hutchison and Glasnow figure to be the frontrunners , it is too early to discount Brault, the sole lefty in the mix, with four right-handers already slated for the rotation. It’s not enough to vault him into the spot because the Cubs, who will be returning their starting lineup with the exception of Fowler, were the top ranked team against southpaws in 2016 and the Cardinals expect to be more than adequate against them.

Williams, on the other hand, has even less of a shot than Brault and will likely serve as organizational depth stashed away in Indianapolis.