"It's all about health. That's the biggest key. But if we stay healthy and everyone pitches to potential -- yeah, we'll be pretty good." -- Right-hander James McDonald, on the Pirates' starting rotation.
Filled with Classic memories, Wandy back with Bucs
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Wandy Rodriguez had a big hand in putting the Dominican Republic into the World Baseball Classic final.
However, he will have the same view of Tuesday night's title game against Puerto Rico as most of the rest of us: On television, via MLB Network.
The left-hander was back in the Pirates' Spring Training clubhouse on Monday, with a big smile on his lips and special memories in his heart. Rodriguez was in no danger of leaving his heart in San Francisco, because he never got it there.
It was not an easy decision to shed the Dominican uniform. However, Rodriguez, ineligible per Classic rules to pitch again after throwing six innings and 74 pitches on Saturday in a 2-0 win over Puerto Rico, could not justify a cross-country flight just to be an observer.
"I had to come back here and start getting ready for the season," said Rodriguez.
He called his first Classic experience, "Wonderful. It was competition on just a really different level. I can't even put into words what it was like."
Despite slow spring, Alvarez likely ticketed for cleanup
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pedro Alvarez is not a March hitter. If he had to earn a job in Spring Training, he wouldn't have one. That's just the way it is with some players, especially those with some tenure who are comfortable with preparing for the season while oblivious to preseason stats.
Also while looking at the big picture, the Pirates are likewise getting comfortable with the idea Alvarez could fulfill one of the team's biggest hopes for 2013 -- that he can grow into the everyday cleanup hitter.
Alvarez is batting .161, characteristic of his spring. What is not typical of him are the six strikeouts in 31 at-bats, a true indication of the solid contact he has been making.
"For me," manager Clint Hurdle said, "it started in Kissimmee [Friday, against the Astros]. He had three good at-bats, and even the one time he struck out against a left-hander, he was on every pitch, with good timing. He's taking good, aggressive swings."
Hurdle will always tinker with his lineup, moving around even regulars depending on the sort of pitcher the team faces and the type of offensive approach is needed. He often cites how successful Tony La Russa was with his forever fluid Cardinals lineups.
The one player Hurdle would like to plant and leave alone, though, is Alvarez in the four-hole.
"We'll be best served when he puts his foot down and takes ownership of that spot," Hurdle said. "You'd like to find a guy you can put in there and leave alone, and Pedro is definitely one we're considering.
"I definitely think he's got much more confidence now than going into last season, and we can anticipate him building upon the productive way he got through some great challenges he faced last year."
Hurdle referenced what had to be the most impressive aspect of Alvarez's 2012: In mid-June -- interestingly, at the end of a failed month-long trial at cleanup -- he was batting .189, with eight homers and 25 RBIs; from that point on to the end of the season, he was a .274-hitter, with 22 homers and 60 RBIs.
Decisions loom for Pirates as Opening Day nears
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington could be excused if they awoke in a cold sweat Wednesday morning.
The realization that they were 12 days, and nine games, from Opening Day could be unsettling. There are still 43 players in the Major League camp. But the "problem" isn't quantity, but the quality that renders several looming decisions as arduous.
Those final dozen preseason days will be extremely busy for Huntington, who doubtless is in conversation with multiple teams about deals that could ease some of the congestion in his camp.
Some tough calls -- such as having more deserving candidates than vacancies on the pitching staff -- could be foreseen. Others may have blindsided the staff, which, obviously, calls them "good problems to have."
For instance, Ivan De Jesus' solid play -- nine hits in his last 19 at-bats have lifted his average to .400 -- is complicating the battle for two reserve infielder spots. Incumbents Jordy Mercer (.368) and Josh Harrison (.286) have also been productive -- and the latter has also dazzled with the glove.
Brandon Inge, the sentimental favorite entering Spring Training, has not yet been a factor.
The outfield crunch appeared somewhat eased when Jose Tabata, who'd gotten off to a torrid start, cooled. Tabata, however, may still have the inside track to one of two backup jobs because the three other prime candidates are all left-handed hitters.
Good luck choosing there, since all three are performing well: Alex Presley (.297) has provided the spark atop the lineup that he couldn't last season, Felix Pie (.281) also adds speed in the field and Brad Hawpe has a clock ticking toward a March 24 opt-out clause.
Hawpe's performance has not been compelling -- five hits and 15 strikeouts in 32 at-bats -- but his swing still is. His experience would make him the ideal man to bring off the bench when the Pirates need a long ball; however, there is little room for such a specialist on a modern 25-man roster squeezed by a 12-man pitching staff.
Hawpe does have a long home run -- but Pie has two of them, and also shares the team lead with seven RBIs.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.