Top 10 issues facing Pirates this spring

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10. Mind the children

Part of the fun of spring training -- for management, too -- is getting a glimpse of the youngest talent. But, this spring, more than a glimpse might be warranted. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' top prospect, opened eyes with his performance and poise as a 19-year-old last spring, and some in the organization view him as having a chance to reach Pittsburgh late this season. Catcher Neil Walker -- or is that third baseman Neil Walker? -- and starter Brad Lincoln will open camp with the major-leaguers, too.

9. Pain in the knee

Outfielders Jason Bay and Jody Gerut, each recovering from knee surgery, will be the only players with uncertain health status. Bay's procedure was much less serious, a minor cleanup in late November, but it remains to be seen if he can go full-bore from the outset. Gerut has not played in two years and will see his first baseball-related activity since last spring.

8. Big bat, big pressure

Many eyes, including those of his teammates, will be on Adam LaRoche, the ballyhooed newcomer. How he handles that, as well as how he performs in the cleanup spot, could provide a strong indicator of whether or not he will meet expectations.

7. A time to tinker?

Last spring was a learning experience for manager Jim Tracy, pitching coach Jim Colborn and the rest of the staff, as well as everyone they were teaching. Some pitchers, notably Zach Duke, had mechanics tweaked. Some hitters, notably Chris Duffy, had their approaches altered. Will we see less of that in the second year?

6. Get Torres tired

Usually, a closer is handled with kid gloves in the spring. But the Pirates' plan is to go the other way and keep Salomon Torres plenty busy, mostly to help him establish his typically excellent second-half form much earlier in the season.

5. Kids in relief?

Torres, Matt Capps, John Grabow and Damaso Marte have bullpen jobs, but the final three spots are blank. Expect Dan Kolb to take one despite his minor-league contract, and look for another to go to the loser of the fifth-starter competition. The last opening will go to one of a promising group of youngsters that includes Josh Sharpless, Jonah Bayliss, Brian Rogers, Juan Perez and Jesse Chavez.

4. The bench battles

Outfielder Nate McLouth and catcher-first baseman-outfielder Ryan Doumit are locks for two of the five bench spots, as is the loser of the starting duel between Jose Castillo and Jose Bautista. That leaves another outfielder, maybe Luis Matos, and definitely a backup middle infielder, maybe Jose Hernandez again. If Doumit is not the backup catcher -- the team values his bat enough to want him to play more often than that -- the job could go again to Humberto Cota.

3. The $7 million question

Tony Armas Jr. and Shawn Chacon -- who will make a combined $6.8 million this season -- will duel for the fifth starter's job, although management is including Shane Youman and Marty McLeary in the mix, too. Armas opens with the edge because he made 30 starts to Chacon's 20 last season, and because of Chacon's long-nagging knee trouble.

2. Jose, can you play?

Expect the greatest attention to be paid to the Battle of the Joses. If Castillo wins, he keeps his job at second. If Bautista wins, he plays third and Freddy Sanchez shifts to second. It is the only undecided element to the starting lineup, and it carries additional weight for the two involved: Castillo is 25, Bautista 26, and neither wants to enter a critical year for his career in a bench role.

1. Will they win?

Victories in the Grapefruit League count no more for the Pirates than for other teams. But their general quality of play, team spirit and other facets surely will need to peak in the latter portions of spring training to avoid another season-breaking 0-6 start, as happened last year.



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