BRADENTON, Fla. -- "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." -- Rogers Hornsby
Pirates spring training is only days away. Players will begin to report Feb. 10, and the first practice is Feb. 12. After an offseason of great overhaul in the front office and coaching staff, Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton's Pirates team are finally about to take the field.
But there are still plenty of questions that need answered before those 26 players run onto Tropicana Field for the opener on Mar. 26. Is everyone healthy? Who is ready to take that next step? What position battles are there? These questions, and more, will need to be answered between that first workout and opening day six weeks from then.
These are the top most pressing Pirates questions as players start reporting to Bradenton.
10. Who is backing up Jacob Stallings?
Stallings is one of the game's best defensive catchers and was so liked and respected by the pitchers that he became the personal catcher to about half the staff last year. He will go into 2020 the starter, and his battery partner will almost certainly be of a similar mold as him.
“I think it’s fair to say that we put a have put an emphasis on a group that is going to help our pitching staff, perform at the highest level possible," Cherington said of the team's catchers during PiratesFest.
At the moment, the competition for the back-up job appears to be between Luke Maile and John Ryan Murphy. Both are light-hitters but very good defenders.
Maile seemingly has the edge going into Bradenton. For one, he is already on the 40-man roster. Second, he worked with Cherington and Shelton in Toronto.
“The familiarity with your manager, with Derek and with Ben, goes a long way,” Maile said during PiratesFest. “Any time you can have that in this game, I think it’s only going to help you.”
9. Is anyone else coming?
Free agency has extended into February and spring training the past few years, and while this year's batch of players without a team is not as noteworthy as 2019's, there are still a couple good veterans available.
The Pirates still have some holes on the roster and have available funds after the Starling Marte trade. The question Cherington needs to answer is if those resources could be better allocated elsewhere in the organization or for a future season.
“I am hopeful that we’ll add to the group in some way before we get to Bradenton,” Cherington said shortly after trading Marte on Jan. 27.
Since then, the Pirates have added a handful of minor-league free agents, including left-handers Robbie Erlin and Derek Holland, and signed utlityman J.T. Riddle to a major-league contract. Is that going to be it? The Pirate have been connected to outfielders Kevin Pillar and Cameron Maybin recently. Could one of them be coming on a minor-league or major-league deal? If it's the latter, it would require a corresponding roster move since the 40-man is currently full.
8. Who is the closer?
The Pirates are going to need someone new to close down the ninth inning this season. While Keone Kela has the most experience in the role and is very likely the front runner, Derek Shelton did not commit to him being the closer during PiratesFest.
“Kela’s gonna pitch at the back end of games,” Shelton said. “To specifically say right now he’s going to be our closer, I’m not gonna say that. I think he’s going to pitch very meaningful innings at the back end of the game. I’m excited to watch him. I mean, it’s a big arm with really good stuff. I’ve had multiple good conversations with him this offseason.”
If it's not Kela, who else could it be? Again, from Shelton:
“There’s multiple people who can be in that mix, who are going to be pitching at the back end of the game in big innings for us. I’ve expressed that to those guys and told them that, and then as we get to spring training and work further, we’ll be able to make that decision.”
The most likely competition are Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez, both of whom are under team control for years to come while Kela is a free agent at the end of the season.
7. Who is the fifth starter?
Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller and Trevor Williams all look like locks for the rotation, but the fifth spot is up for grabs. At the moment, the competition appears to be between Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl and Holland.
Holland, an 11-year vet, has the deepest resume and was a solid starter in 2018, but he is coming off a disastrous 2019 where he went 2-5 with a 6.08 ERA, splitting time as a starter and reliever.
Brault, 27, is no stranger to spring training competitions, seemingly fighting for a spot in the rotation or on the opening day roster every year. Injuries to the staff gave him his first extended stint in the rotation last year, and he looked good until a couple ugly outings at the end of the year, which threw off his season stats.
Kuhl's candidacy is hinging on how he looks after coming back from Tommy John surgery. The 27-year-old said during PiratesFest he has made some tweaks to his delivery to try to take better care of his arm.
“I think you will notice the changes just from watching me throw,” Kuhl said.
Kuhl's role with the team is unknown at this point, even to him.
“I am preparing as a starter, but I haven’t discussed my role in any way shape or form with anybody,” Kuhl said.
It is worth considering both Brault and Kuhl have a minor-league option remaining, so they could theoretically be fighting for a major-league job, too. Holland needs to make the opening day roster or he can opt-out of his deal. Any of these pitchers could also do long relief in the bullpen.
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