With pitchers and catchers already reporting to 2011 Spring Training, here's a look at how position battles are shaping up for the Pirates. Most of the rotation and the starting lineup are set, but there are still jobs to be won and lost at fifth starter, in the bullpen, and on the bench.
-P- The last spot in the rotation. James McDonald, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf and Kevin Correia should claim four of the Pirates' starting pitching job, leaving one spot for Charlie Morton, Scott Olsen, Brad Lincoln, Jeff Karstens or possibly even Rudy Owens. Morton appears very likely to win the job - the Pirates love his stuff, and he's out of options, so the Pirates would have to leave him open to the waiver process if they tried to send him to the minors. Also, Olsen's contract is structured so that he becomes very expensive if he stays in the rotation the whole year. Lincoln will likely head to Class AAA Indianapolis, and Karstens will pitch out of the Pirates' bullpen.
There hasn't been much talk about Owens as a potential candidate, and since he hasn't yet pitched in Class AAA, that's where the Bucs are likely to send him. But their front office loves him, and he's polished enough to potentially succeed in the majors right away, so I wouldn't completely dismiss the possibility that he wows them in camp and comes from nowhere to win the job.
-P- The bullpen. The Pirates will probably go north with seven relievers. Three of those will be Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek and Chris Resop. After that, the Pirates will need a lefty or two, one of which will almost certainly be non-roster invitee Joe Beimel. Olsen, assuming he doesn't win a rotation job, will probably be another, since he's on a major-league deal.
That leaves two spots. I'm guessing one will go to Jose Veras, a non-roster invitee who struggles with his control but throws hard and has a reasonable track record in the minors and in stints with the Yankees, Indians and Marlins. Karstens, who can soak up innings, will likely get the last spot. Jose Ascanio, who spent most of last year on the shelf after having labrum surgery, could begin the season on the 15-day DL and claim a bullpen spot in mid-May or so. Kevin Hart is out of options as well, but it looks unlikely he'll be ready to start the season.
Beimel's last-minute addition solidified the bullpen considerably. There still appears to be a lot of competition for the spots after Hanrahan, Meek, Resop and Beimel, but I'd rate the chances of most of the remaining candidates (Chris Leroux, Daniel McCutchen, Sean Gallagher, Fernando Nieve, Tony Watson, Danny Moskos, Brian Burres) as being considerably worse than those of the guys listed above.
-P- The bench. The Bucs' starting eight (Chris Snyder at catcher, Lyle Overbay at first, Neil Walker at second, Ronny Cedeno at short, Pedro Alvarez at third, and Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen and a Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz platoon in the outfield) is more or less set. The Pirates will have five players on their bench, one of whom will be whichever of Jones and Diaz isn't starting. Another will be catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit, unless the Pirates manage to dump his contract before the season starts.
That leaves three spots. At least one, and probably two, of those will be an infielder. First up is Josh Rodriguez, a Rule 5 pick from the Indians. Rodriguez, who hit very well for Class AAA Columbus last year, is the best choice for utility infielder on merit, and it doesn't hurt his cause that the Pirates will almost certainly lose him if he doesn't make the team.
That leaves two spots. In a post at Bucs Dugout back in January, I argued that they would go to Steve Pearce and John Bowker, but some of my commenters thought that the Pirates would take someone who can play infield positions besides first instead of one of those guys, and I think they're probably right. I just don't know who that bench infielder will be.
There's Pedro Ciriaco (good glove at shortstop, but no bat), Corey Wimberly (versatile, has some on-base ability, and is very fast, but has no power whatsoever), Garrett Atkins (probably washed up and doesn't play middle infield, but used to play for Clint Hurdle when Hurdle managed the Rockies), Josh Fields (third baseman with power but low batting averages) and Andy Marte (a corner infielder and former top prospect whose career has stalled at Class AAA and in the majors). Wimberly would make a lot of sense since he can play center field as well as the infield, with Bowker taking the last bench spot because he's out of options. It wouldn't be a shock at all if Atkins won a job, however. And if the Pirates can find a spot somewhere for Pearce, that would be great, since he does a nice job against lefty pitching.