Spring training is the ultimate time for optimism.
Every team thinks it has a chance to win a pennant at this time of year. OK, maybe everyone but those woebegone Oakland Athletics.
And every team is excited about taking the field for spring workouts. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in that category after spending over $1 billion on free agents this winter.
The Pittsburgh Pirates even have legitimate reasons for optimism after going from 62 wins in 2022 to 76 victories last year. In a wide-open National League Central, the Pirates could be contenders if certain things fall into place.
Yet the Pirates still have questions just two days before pitchers and catchers begin working out at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Here are three of them and my prediction on how they will be answered:
Who Will Round Out The Rotation?
Just three of the Pirates’ five starting pitchers are set with right-hander Mitch Keller and two offseason acquisitions in left-handers Martin Perez and Marco Gonzales.
Among those expected to compete for the final two jobs are lefties Bailey Falter and Michael Plassmeyer and righties Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, Wily Peralta and Quinn Priester.
Missing from that list is Paul Skenes, the first overall pick in last year’s draft, who is more talented than any of the six candidates. Unfortunately, the Pirates plan to take a conservative route and have Skenes start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis or Double-A Altoona.
The Pirates need to add one other reliable starter and perhaps it will happen sometime this week. For now, though, we’ll work under the assumption that no more help is coming.
Thus, the picks here for the fourth and fifth starters are Falter and Ortiz.
General manager Ben Cherington understands the value of having left-handed pitchers at PNC Park, which works in Falter’s favor. Meanwhile, Ortiz is the closest among the other pitchers to have much of a track record in the major leagues.
Who Will Play Second Base?
The Pirates have yet to find a replacement at second base for Adam Frazier, who was traded during the 2021 season less than a month after starting in the All-Star Game.
A host of candidates will vie for the job in spring training. The group includes Sergio Alcantara, Ji Hwan Bae, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Jared Triolo and Alika Williams.
While the list of potential second basemen is long, there is one clear favorite. That is Peguero, who is intriguing because of his blend of power and speed that is topped by a strong dash of charisma.
Peguero will need to have a very poor Grapefruit League showing not to be in the lineup on March 28 when the Pirates open the season against the Marlins in Miami.
Who Will Be The Right Fielder?
The number of candidates for the starting right fielder’s job is also as long as the ones for the bottom of the rotation and second base.
No one came close to starting the majority of games last season for the Pirates as Henry Davis led the way with 49 starts. Davis appeared likely to be the opening-day catcher when the Pirates agreed to terms with veteran Yasmani Grandal on a one-year, $2.5-million contract.
The Pirates could go in a couple of different directions. They could carry Davis and Grandal as their catchers or they could go with the duo of Grandal and Jason Delay behind the plate while shifting Davis back to right field.
Beyond possibly Davis, that leaves Gilberto Celestino, Connor Joe, Jake Lamb, Billy McKinney, Edward Olivares, Joshua Palacios and Joe Perez vying for the job. It’s a lot of players to sort through.
The most intriguing of the bunch is Lamb, who hit 30 home runs and had 105 RBIs in 2017 for the Arizona Diamondbacks while being selected to the All-Star Game. Lamb’s career has been beset by injuries since then but as the late great scout George Zuraw used to tell me, “If you’ve seen it once, it’s in there.”
Acquired from the Royals in December, Olivares deserves a look following two solid seasons as a part-time player with Kansas City. I expect the right-handed hitter to be the short end of a platoon with Palacios, who made a strong impression on manager Derek Shelton last season.