Many questions exist as Pirates begin spring play

BRADENTON, Fla. — The 2017 Grapefruit League season opened this weekend, and there are many questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates as they try to improve on last year’s third-place finish in the National League’s Central Division.

Will Andrew McCutchen be with the club when it heads north? If he is, will he be happy in right field, and will his statistics improve over last year’s disappointments?

Will the new-look outfield — McCutchen in right, Starling Marte in center and Gregory Polanco in left — be an upgrade defensively, or not? And, how soon will we see Austin Meadows with the big club?

Where’s Jung Ho Kang? Facing three DUI charges in South Korea, Kang is still missing from camp, which puts a big power void in the Pirates’ lineup. If Kang is gone for long, David Freese will be at the hot corner with John Jaso and ex-Curve standout Adam Frazier as other possibilities.

Steady Jordy Mercer returns at shortstop with Josh Harrison at second base, but is Josh Bell ready to be the full-time first baseman or will we see a lot of Jaso there again?

Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are capable catchers, with Elias Diaz ready to jump in behind the plate.

Pitching is always a question mark, and Gerrit Cole could/should be the staff leader, if he bounces back from his 2016 disappointment. Ivan Nova should be near the top of the rotation, along with Jameson Taillon, who had a breakout year in ’16.

Others in the running for starting spots could include Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow, and possibly Steven Brault, Drew Hutchison, Nick Kingham or Trevor Williams.

Tony Watson will be the closer while the rest of the bullpen hopefuls include Felipe Rivero, Juan Nicasio, A.J. Schugel, Jared Hughes and Antonio Bastardi among others.

Questions? There are many to be answered in the next three or four weeks, and you can never rule out a trade that could make a big change, too.

And, of course, there’s the World Baseball Classic, which comes into play every three years during spring training. The Pirates will lose Marte, Polanco and Nova to the Dominican Republic team while McCutchen plays for the United States and Cervelli with Italy.

They’ll leave the Bucs March 5 and play for their homeland teams until they’re eliminated. Both the Dominicans and U.S. could advance deep into the WBC, meaning they could miss much of spring training. The WBC finals are March 20-22.

Pirate City is jumping with former Buccos, who are serving as “special instructors” for Clint Hurdle and his staff this spring. Among the “old-timers” in camp are Bill Mazeroski, Rennie Stennett, Bill Virdon, Manny Sanguillen, Kevin Young, Steve Blass, John Candelaria, Mike LaValliere, Omar Moreno and Kent Tekulve.

Pirate president Frank Coonelly has been a frequent visitor at Pirate City, too. It’s always nice to catch up with him.

Soaking up the sun

Jean and Joan continue to add to their Bucco autograph collection. Making this week’s list were Josh Bell, Phil Gosselin, Wade LeBlanc, Pat Light, Max Moroff, Gift Ngoepe, A. J. Schugel, Trevor Williams, Jose Osuna, Clay Holmes, Daniel Hudson and Jamey Carroll.

The annual “Altoona Day” event was held at Duff’s Original Buffet in Bradenton this past week with 140 Altoonans and former Altoonans on hand for the festivities. Special recognition went to John Luciano and Louise Sumerville, the oldest attendees. Next year’s event will be held on Thursday, Feb. 22 at Duff’s.

Altoona friends Bill and Sandy Shover visited and we had dinner at Barnicle Bill’s Seafood in Sarasota. We also dined at First Watch, Fire & Stone Pizza, and Beef ‘O’ Brady’s this week. We also spent an enjoyable day at the Sarasota Kennel Club.

Until next week …

Lane, a retired sports editor of the Mirror, writes from Florida in February and March.