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Pirates, MLB storylines entering spring training

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates catcher Russell Martin talks with pitcher A.J. Burnett on the mound during a 2013 game against the Cardinals at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates catcher Russell Martin talks with pitcher A.J. Burnett on the mound during a 2013 game against the Cardinals at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - The Pirates' Andrew Lambo waits to take batting practice Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Pirates' Andrew Lambo waits to take batting practice Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer turns a double play on the Diamondbacks' Aaron Hill on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer turns a double play on the Diamondbacks' Aaron Hill on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco prepares to take batting practice Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Polanco was ranked as the Pirates' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco prepares to take batting practice Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Polanco was ranked as the Pirates' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America.
Christopher Horner - Pirates pitching prospect Jameson Taillon works out during spring training in March at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner</em></div>Pirates pitching prospect Jameson Taillon works out during spring training in March at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez watches pitchers during spring training last year at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez watches pitchers during spring training last year at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

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Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
 

The Tribune-Review looks at the top storylines heading into spring training.

Pirates camp

Who's on first?

General manager Neal Huntington tried to acquire a first baseman over the winter but struck out on the free agent and trade markets. Could there be a viable platoon combination amid Gaby Sanchez, Andrew Lambo and Chris McGuiness? Possibly. That won't stop Huntington from continuing to work the phones, searching for a deal. The issue might not be resolved until the final week of camp, when teams make final cuts and are more willing to swing a trade than lose a guy for nothing via waivers.

Life after A.J.

A.J. Burnett was more than just the Opening Day starter last season. He provided 10 wins, 30 starts, 209 strikeouts and 191 innings pitched. Those shoes probably are too big for new arrival Edinson Volquez to fill. Gerrit Cole has the grit and stuff to be a workhorse, but is that too much to ask for a guy in his first full season in the majors?

How's the arm, Wandy?

He's probably sick of the question, but it won't go away. Wandy Rodriguez's left arm went sour in June and cost him the rest of the season. After working out at his home in the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez insisted during minicamp that he'll be ready for Day 1 of spring training. Even if he's not, don't panic. With two early off days, the Pirates could push his debut back to April 14, two weeks into the season.

Shortstop transition

Jordy Mercer's bat cost veteran Clint Barmes the starting job midway through last season. But down the stretch and throughout the playoffs, when defense mattered most, Barmes was back in the lineup. This spring, Mercer again is listed as the everyday guy. Barmes was resigned as a mentor ... and a safety net in case Mercer fails to smooth his rough edges in the field.

AROUND THE MAJORS

The next big thing

Masahiro Tanaka got $155 million from the Yankees, who hope signing the right-hander will thrust them back into the AL playoff mix. Although he never has thrown a pitch in the majors, Tanaka received the largest open-market contract for a free-agent right-hander. Those who saw him pitch in Japan say Tanaka is capable of living up to the deal. The Pirates could get an up-close look at him soon, as they'll face the Yankees five times in Grapefruit League play.

New-look Tigers

Jim Leyland retired. Prince Fielder and Doug Fister were traded. Justin Verlander is on the mend from muscle surgery. Yet Detroit remains the team to beat in an improved AL Central. Leyland remains with the team as a special assistant and will help first-time manager Brad Ausmus during spring training. Miguel Cabrera will replace Fielder at first base, which should be a plus defensively. And defending AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer is up to the task of anchoring the rotation until Verlander returns.

Rolling out replay

MLB will test drive its expanded instant replay system during some televised games in Florida and Arizona. Under the new rules, a manager will be able to demand a review of up to two calls per game. Close plays, even those not under review, finally can be shown on video scoreboards. Hit by pitch, trapped balls in the outfield and fan interference are among the plays that may be reviewed.

On the move, maybe

Officials in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., recently nixed plans to build a spring training complex that would have been shared by the Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays. The Astros, who train in Kissimmee, still are looking at options in Florida but could end up moving their camp to Arizona in 2017. If the Blue Jays leave their site in Dunedin, Fla., the Milwaukee Brewers might leave Arizona and return to Florida. And the Washington Nationals, who are in Brevard, Fla., have talked about relocating to a more centralized site away from Florida's east coast.

ON THE VERGE

Pitcher Gerrit Cole was sent down to Triple-A Indianapolis last year despite several impressive spring training outings. By June, the Pirates deemed him ready for the big leagues, and he hasn't looked back.

This spring, there are three players who are unlikely to break camp with the Pirates but who also don't have much left to prove in the minors:

OF Gregory Polanco

Right field could be his by mid-June if Jose Tabata and Travis Snider fail to produce. Even if Tabata or Snider put up decent numbers, it's just a matter of time before Polanco arrives. Scouts love Polanco's speed, size and still-developing power.RHP Jameson Taillon

Taillon was part of the first wave of cuts from big league camp last spring. “We will give him the ball a little bit more” this spring, GM Neal Huntington said, “but Jameson still has work to do” in the minors. That means Taillon will be the ace of Indy's rotation for at least the first couple of months this season.

C Tony Sanchez

In his big league debut last summer, Sanchez didn't do enough to convince management he's ready to be Russell Martin's backup. The club added veteran Chris Stewart in early December, meaning Sanchez will be at Indy for the third year in a row. Sanchez will get a September call-up, then look ahead to when Martin's contract expires after the 2014 season.

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