By Will Graves
February 17, 2015
Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers A.J. Burnett, right, and Jeff Locke, arrive for an informal spring training baseball workout in Bradenton, Fla., Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. The first official practice for Pirates pitchers and catchers is Thursday, Feb. 19. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have spent the last two seasons transforming themselves from laughingstock to legitimate contender.
The next step might be the hardest. Yet the Pirates begin spring training this week confident they've made the necessary moves to produce a third straight playoff appearance - one they hope lasts longer than a mere cameo.
''We feel good about our additions,'' general manager Neal Huntington said.
Even if those additions have a largely familiar feel. Pittsburgh re-signed starter Francisco Liriano with the most expensive free agent contract in club history. A.J. Burnett, whose arrival in 2012 augured a significant and vital change in mindset, left millions on the table in Philadelphia to make one last run in a place where he revitalized his once flagging career. Rather than wait for the inevitable, the Pirates traded for catcher Francisco Cervelli before Toronto went deep in the vault to lure All-Star Russell Martin to his native Canada.
The club's payroll will near a team record $90 million in 2015. While its spending still ranks near the bottom of the National League, payroll has more than doubled in the last five years.
''We've got to be efficient and effective but our margin for error is a little larger,'' Huntington said. ''We've allocated resources to our bench and we've built a deeper club because there is more money available to us.''
Huntington simply hopes it's money well spent. The Pirates still have several key questions as they look to keep pace with St. Louis and fend off the resurgent Chicago Cubs in perhaps the most competitive division in baseball. Here's what to look for over the next six weeks as Pittsburgh prepares for a season it hopes will carry past early October:
PEDRO'S PROGRESS: The Pirates hope a change in perspective will change Pedro Alvarez's fortunes. The former first-round pick saw his right arm betray him time and again at third base last year. He had 25 errors in just 99 games and will start camp in the mix at first. Alvarez doesn't need to be dynamic defensively, merely adequate. His strength will always be his bat, which - when hot - is one of the most dangerous in the NL.
''He's not the first player and he's not the last player that will go through a struggle,'' Huntington said. ''He's not going to be the first and the last to come out of that struggle. We need to get him back to hitting balls in the seats.''
KANG-DO ATTITUDE: Pittsburgh made one of baseball's more intriguing moves when it spent $5 million for the rights to negotiate Korean middle infielder Jung-Ho Kang, then offered him another $11 million over four years to make the leap to the majors. Kang raised some eyebrows when he called out shortstop Jordy Mercer. If he can come close to replicating the power numbers he put up in Korea - including 40 homers last year - Kang might not be wrong.
BACK END BOTTLENECK: Liriano, Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton are entrenched as the top four starters. The battle for the fifth spot should be interesting with Jeff Locke, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton all in the mix. Locke regained some of his confidence last summer after a horrific second half in 2013 while Worley was just the latest reclamation success story for pitching coach Ray Searage, going 8-4 with a 2.85 ERA after being called up from Triple-A. Cumpton's stuff isn't dominant but he's proven reliable at times.
RIGHT ON TIME: Gregory Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh as a savior in right field last June and ended the season as a cautionary tale following a dismal finish. He will have every chance to lock down the starting job for the next five years but will face competition from free-agent flyer Corey Hart and inconsistent Andrew Lambo, who can't seem to locate the power stroke that served him so well in the minors.
THE OTHER FRANCISCO: Pittsburgh grabbed Martin from the Yankees two years ago with remarkable results. Huntington thinks the Pirates have done the same with Cervelli. When healthy, Cervelli is effective defensively and more offensively potent than backup Chris Stewart. A full-time starter for the first time in his career, Cervelli will have every chance to prove the dropoff from Martin won't be as bad as initially feared.