By Adam Berry MLB.com
The Pirates began turning the page toward 2019 in September, when they fell out of the postseason race and started evaluating young players who could make an impact in the future.
Well, now it's almost actually 2019, and the future is just about here. In six weeks, the Bucs will head south to Bradenton, Fla., to start Spring Training. They will file into the crowded Pirate City clubhouse and prepare for another season as an underdog in the competitive National League Central.
What can they do to put themselves in a better position and outperform those projections next season? How can they improve on their just-over-.500 2018 and get back to the postseason for the first time since '15?
Let's take a look at six things the Pirates must figure out before the season begins.
1. Who's the shortstop?
The Pirates left the Winter Meetings with an open mind and a list of candidates to succeed longtime shortstop Jordy Mercer, who signed with the Tigers. The Pirates spoke highly of internal options Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman. They checked in with the D-backs about Nick Ahmed. They reportedly expressed interest in free agent Freddy Galvis and the recently released Troy Tulowitzki.
This probably isn't a make-or-break decision for Pirates GM Neal Huntington and Co. Their success or failure will more likely be determined by the performance of their returning players, from Starling Marte and Josh Bell to Chris Archer and Keone Kela. But Pittsburgh can upgrade at shortstop, and improved infield defense is a necessity next season.
2. Who's the fifth starter?
Barring another addition, it seems like the primary candidates are already on the roster: Jordan Lyles, Nick Kingham and Steven Brault. Huntington said Lyles has the "inside track," a pretty strong indication that it's his job to lose. The Pirates believe Lyles' second-half adjustments last season represent the start of a career renaissance, so he'll have every opportunity to crack the rotation.
Kingham showed promise amid his rookie struggles, and the lefty Brault would have an advantage pitching in PNC Park. If none of the three makes a strong enough claim, the Pirates could turn to the "opener" strategy every fifth day and use those three as "followers" behind an initial-out-getting reliever.
3. Catching on
Are they going to trade Francisco Cervelli? That's the question here. If the Bucs bring back Cervelli, they're set behind the plate with him and backup Elias Diaz; the only decision they'd have to make is whether they'll also carry Jacob Stallings as a third catcher.
If they trade Cervelli, they'll likely be committing to a Diaz-Stallings tandem. That would put quite a bit of pressure on Diaz, who looked ready for everyday work as he slashed .286/.339/.452 with 10 homers in 82 games last season. They would benefit from additional Major League-ready depth, as they don't have many obvious options behind Stallings.
4. Who's healthy? Who's hurting?
People love position battles, but this might be the most important question facing the Pirates as they get closer to Opening Day. Archer and Joe Musgrove had surgery early in the offseason, and both are expected to be ready for the start of the season. But the Bucs' MLB-ready rotation depth is already limited, so it's critical that two of their top four starters are ready to go -- and fully healthy -- from the start. Right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall is coming off a couple of years marred by injuries. With an everyday opportunity waiting, how will his calves hold up?
Gregory Polanco won't be ready by Opening Day, but the coming months should provide clarity regarding his timeline. Polanco is set to begin a throwing program in mid-January, Huntington said during the Winter Meetings, and that will be the greatest test for his surgically repaired shoulder. Polanco was the Pirates' most productive power bat last year, so an early return would be significant for their lineup and their bench (where Chisenhall likely would move).
5. Bullpen battle
The Pirates' bullpen is actually quite settled at this point. Closer Felipe Vazquez, Kela and right-handers Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez form a strong back-end quartet. Two of the fifth-starter candidates figure to claim long-relief jobs; it could be all three in an eight-man bullpen, if they use an opener.
That likely leaves one spot. It might go to another left-hander, if they add one. It might go to right-hander Nick Burdi, whose high-octane stuff and Rule 5 restrictions might give him a leg up on the competition. It could be Michael Feliz, who struggled last season then signed a split contract in his first trip through the arbitration process. There are other candidates on the roster, and a few more might emerge from the list of non-roster invitees. This time last year, remember, Rodriguez was hardly considered an impact arm.
6. Hit 'em up
This will be nearly impossible to quantify, and it likely will be a yearlong process. But how will the Pirates adapt to a new hitting program led by new coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz? Will they find the consistency that too often eluded them last season? Will they unlock the power of corner infielders Bell and Colin Moran? How will Jung Ho Kang look upon his return?
The daily drills of Spring Training might seem monotonous, but it will be an important time for Pittsburgh's young hitters as they seek to take a step forward under Eckstein and Cruz.