Baseball season is here. Today, Pittsburgh Pirates' pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton, Florida for spring training. Just as there is every spring, questions abound for the Pirates, but none greater than those revolving around the two position groups who have the most time to answer them; the ones reporting today, the pitchers and the catchers.
For the pitchers, there is uncertainty throughout the staff. Who is going to be the opening day starter? Who is going to close? Who is going to round out the rotation? The answers to those questions will start to form today.
The opening day starter from a year ago, Jameson Taillon, won't pitch this season. He is leaving a void atop the rotation that guys like Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer, and Mitch Keller will be looking to fill. Competition in the spring is a great thing to have, especially for a young staff, and there should be plenty of it for the Pirates in Bradenton this year.
It isn't only open spots in the rotation that ushers in the competition; this year, the Pirates have a new manager, Derek Shelton, and a new pitching coach, Oscar Marin. The new set of eyes and perspectives leaves the old pecking order in a more tenuous position. Gone is the rapport (or lack of) that those guys had with Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage. It's a fresh start that seems all too fitting for the spring.
Like the starters, the bullpen is also missing last season's lead man; Pedro Vazquez is behind bars, leaving a massive hole in a bullpen that struggled mightily last season. Replacing Vazquez, who was one of the league's best, isn't going to be easy.
Keone Kela is the obvious choice to succeed him, but there are others who could push for the job. Kyle Crick is a name to watch, and it would ironic if it were he who occupies Vazquez's former role after his 2019 season was cut short due to an injury sustained during a clubhouse fight with "The Nightmare."
One dark horse closer candidate is Nick Burdi. He has the stuff of a closer, but is coming off of an injury. If he returns to the form that allowed him to strike out 17 batters in his 8.2 innings last season, he could be worth a shot. Of course, he would have to figure out how to keep those 9 earned runs he surrendered off the board, but there's clearly something there for Oscar Marin to work with.
That leads me into perhaps the most interesting man in Bradenton this spring, Chad Kuhl. Chad is a wild card. Like so many on the pitching staff, he's coming back from an injury (Tommy John surgery). Before the injury, Kuhl had a triple-digit fastball and a pair of breaking pitchers that can keep hitters guessing. I could see him as a starter, or a reliever (anywhere from a long reliever to a closer). It's unreasonable to expect Kuhl to be strong from the get-go considering he's coming off an injury, but he has the stuff to make a difference on this staff. I think he can benefit from a new pitching coach as well. His pitch usage was a bit head-scratching at times. For example, he's never had success throwing a changeup. Batters feast on it to the tune of a .365 lifetime BAA. He's thrown it less as time has gone on, but has never killed it. His curve ball is by far his most effective pitch, and could be used as a replacement for his changeup if he were to drop it. Getting Kuhl to his potential may be the single most impactful thing that Oscar Marin can accomplish this year.
That's just a taste of the pitchers; the catchers will be going through a position battle as well. Jacob Stallings made a name for himself in Pittsburgh as a pitchers' favorite which quickly made him the primary backstop last season. His prior competitor, Elias Diaz, is gone, and has been replaced by Luke Maile. Maile looks a lot more like Stallings than Diaz. He's a defense-first catcher who needs to do more with his bat. Stallings was the same, but started to show more ability at the plate last season. Maile has said that he thinks he can do that too. If he does, he may be able to eat into Stallings' innings.
The one thing that the injuries, coaching changes, and imprisonment brings to the team is competition. While the reason the competition exists may be a negative, it's never a bad thing for players to have the carrot on the stick dangled in front of them from the beginning of the season. The battles within these two positions will be the most intriguing throughout spring training. We will be keeping an eye on them for you.
Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife