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Pirates spring training preview: 9 points for 2013

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 11:05 p.m.
Getty Images
Gaby Sanchez, fielding a ground ball last season, likely will share time at first base this year. (Getty Images)
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Garrett Jones watches his two-run home run during the fifth inning against the Braves on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Marlins on Friday, July 20, 2012, at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett will be counted upon to lead the rotation again. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones makes a running catch to end the second inning against Houston on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

The Pirates open spring training Monday when pitchers and catchers are required to report to Bradenton, Fla., with the team's first official workout scheduled for Tuesday.

The Pirates enter the 2013 season looking to snap the longest consecutive losing streak — 20 seasons — in North American sports history.

They have a number of issues facing the organization. Nine key points are below:

1. First off, who's on first, and who's batting first? Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are expected to platoon at first base and make a combined $6.25 million. Can it work? Combine their 2012 stats, and you get a .252 batting average with 34 homers and 116 RBI. Management would be pleased if the duo dittos those digits this summer. As for a leadoff hitter, the Pirates continue to seek a solid candidate. Last year, their leadoff batters hit .246 with a .291 on-base percentage and .677 on-base plus slugging percentage — all below-average numbers compared to the rest of the National League. Newbie Starling Marte might be the answer, but he needs to sharpen his eye and make contact more often.

2. In 227 pinch-hit at-bats last year, the Pirates hit two home runs — one by Alex Presley, the other by Sanchez — which was the second-worst output in the NL. Even so, it was an improvement over 2011, when the Pirates had one pinch-hit homer. The lack of power off the bench is one reason the Pirates were 3-69 last season when trailing after seven innings. Sanchez, Michael McKenry, Jose Tabata and Josh Harrison figure to be locks for backup roles. Can they, along with another player to be determined, provide enough punch off the bench?

3. Pedro Alvarez ranked third in the NL last season with 18 home runs in road games. His ratio of 17.5 at-bats per home run was third-best among NL players under age 26. When he hit a three-run shot Sept. 25 off the Mets' Collin McHugh, Alvarez became one of three third basemen in Pirates history to slug 30 homers in a season. Despite that raw power, Alvarez hasn't yet claimed the cleanup spot. If it's going to happen, he must take a step forward this season.

4. According to sabermetrician Bill James, A.J. Burnett has a 4 percent chance of reaching 300 career wins. Burnett, 36, is 137-121 over 14 years in the majors. Last season, the righty won 16 games — the most by a Pirate since 1991 — which was tied for sixth most in the NL. Burnett will be a free agent this winter, so this season is a chance for him to show how much he has left in his tank.

5. Jason Grilli had a short resume when he took over the closer's job in December after Joel Hanrahan was traded — Grilli has notched only five saves in his 10-year career. Still, Grilli ranked second in the NL with 32 holds last year, which is an indicator of his reliability. “I did my job,” he said. “I've come in with the bases loaded, no outs and guys like Gary Sheffield and Vladimir Guerrero up and got out of those situations. Heck, if I can do that, it was good practice to get toward the back of the bullpen.” His solid strikeout numbers and mental toughness should help Grilli make a smooth transition from the setup to closer's role.

6. Was it a mistake to give Jose Tabata a six-year contract? The enigmatic outfielder signed his $15 million deal Aug. 21, 2011. Since then, he's batted .246 with a mere three home runs and seems destined to become a million-dollar backup. He was banished to Triple-A Indianapolis for 41 games last summer to improve his swing and attitude. This is an important year for Tabata, who will battle Travis Snider, Alex Presley and Jerry Sands in training camp for playing time. Tabata is under team control through 2016; his contract includes club options for 2017, '18 and '19 that could be bought out for a total of $750,000.

7. The Pirates had a plus-7 win-loss differential last season against Houston, and their 12 victories were the most by any NL Central team against the Astros. The Pirates underscored that success by acquiring lefty Wandy Rodriguez, arguably the Astros' best pitcher, in a midseason trade. However, the rebuilding Astros move to the American League this season, shrinking the NL Central to five teams. That will make the Pirates' path toward a division title a bit rougher ... although the Astros will visit PNC Park for a three-game interleague series in May.

8. Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis ranked the Pirates' farm system No. 8, saying it “isn't deep but has impressive trios of arms and bats that most can't match.” Those arms are righties Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia; the bats are shortstop Alen Hanson and outfielders Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell. Of that group, only Cole — who is in big league camp this spring — has a solid chance to play in the majors in 2013. Taillon likely will spend the entire season at Triple-A. The others will start the season in Class A.

9. Charlie Morton made only nine starts last season before having Tommy John surgery in June. Morton's rehab has progressed well, and he is on track to return to the majors sometime around the middle of the season. But there's no telling what the rotation will look like — or even if there will be room for Morton — when he's ready to get back in action. Many scouts expect Cole will get at least a late-season look. If the Pirates fall out of the running by midseason, Burnett and/or Rodriguez could be trade bait. An injury could create an opening for Morton, or solid performances by the entire staff could shut him out.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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