Bob Smizik: Five key Pirates storylines

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The Pirates go into spring training with a near-minimum of question marks concerning their 25-man roster and starting lineup. Injuries, as always, can alter plans. But what you see is pretty much what you're going to get from the Pirates.

The possibility of deals is slight. Few quality players are available at this point in the baseball calendar. Some might become available as spring training winds down, but, most likely, only because they performed poorly in March. This doesn’t mean there is not some degree of drama in the almost seven weeks between now and the start of the season. Storylines worth following in spring training:

Can Wandy Rodriguez stay healthy?

When fit, Rodriguez is an above-average MLB starter and a genuine asset to the Pirates. But he missed almost the final four months of last season with an injury to his flexor tendon in his left arm. Reports on his early throwing in Bradenton have been good. But it just takes one pitch to undo all the good work. Rodriquez has a positive history in terms of health. Prior to last season, he had 30 or more starts for four consecutive years.

If Rodriguez isn’t ready to start the season, the obvious option is Jeff Locke, who pitched so well in the first half of the season he made the All-Star team and so poorly in the second half he has been replaced by Edinson Volquez.

Who will play first base against right-handed pitching?

The opinion I’ve held is the Pirates acquired right-handed hitting Gaby Sanchez in 2012 with the idea he might become their everyday first baseman. There was some logic to that. In 2010 and 2011 Sanchez fared fairly well against right-handed pitching, posting the same .742 OPS both years. With a .900+ OPS vs. lefties, it cast him as an adequate option to play every day.

But he faltered badly against right-handers in 2012 and was worse last season. He reportedly has lost weight and added muscle. He will get an opportunity to win the starting job on a full-time basis. But if Andrew Lambo has a good spring, particularly in terms of power, he could take the job of facing right-handed pitching away from Sanchez.

Some facts the legion of Sanchez detractors might find interesting: He has a home run every 32 at bats in his MLB career. Marlon Byrd, who many of those same detractors would love to have back, has homered every 41 at bats.

Who wins the final spot in the bullpen?

There are seven jobs available. Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson are locks. Based on their work last season, Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez should also make the team. That leaves Bryan Morris and Stolmy Pimentel for the final spot. Pimentel, a candidate for the 2015 rotation, is out of options and general manager Neal Huntington has virtually assured him of a spot. That leave Morris as the odd man out. A late spring-training trade involving Morris, Mazzaro or Gomez could settle the issue.

Is Volquez the next Francisco Liriano or the next Jonathan Sanchez?

Pitching coach Ray Searage was instrumental in resurrecting the careers of Liriano and A.J. Burnett and the Pirates hope he can have a similar effect Volquez, who has a 5.09 ERA over the past three seasons. Volquez once was considered a top-of-the-rotation talent. He was 17-6 with Cincinnati in 2008. With a $5 million salary and with the Pirates wanting Locke to get some time in Class AAA, Volquez, unlike Sanchez last year, is not in a fight to make the roster. The absence of that kind of pressure could help.

In all likelihood, Volquez is somewhere between Liriano and Sanchez. The Pirates can only hope he’s closer to the former than the latter.

Which Locke will show up this year?

As much as the Pirates would prefer to see him open the season in Class AAA, Locke is an injury away from making the rotation. When he dazzled in the first half of last season, 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA that was third best in the National League, many analysts were predicting an abrupt decline. They were right. His ERA soared to 6.12 in the second half and his BAA went from .202 to .308.

His 2011-12 history with the Pirates -- 12 games, 10 starts, 5.82 ERA -- indicate his second half was the more accurate picture. But few teams have a 2013 All-Star waiting in the wings to help the 2014 rotation.


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