|If healthy, newcomer A.J. Burnett can definitely improve the Pirates' rotation. (Getty Images)|
BRADENTON, Fla. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Pirates:
• Better starting pitching. Granted, there are no guarantees with A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard. Especially where Bedard's health is concerned. But Burnett should give the Bucs close to 200 innings and I think his upside, now that he's out of the AL East, is higher than people think. And if they produce, the Pirates will feel the ripple effect all the way down the line. "The addition of Bedard and Burnett will make our staff that much more deep, which is what fuels the machine," manager Clint Hurdle says. "When you can use relievers when you want to versus when you have to ... our bullpen got dog-piled late in the season. They pitched fantastic for four months, and then the workload became too much." By season's end, the Pirates' pen ranked 12th in the NL with a 3.76 ERA. Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Jason Grilli and Co. have a chance this year to not get overworked. If that happens, the Pirates will surprise.
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• Outfield speed. With Alex Presley covering the spacious left field in PNC Park and Andrew McCutchen in center, it's like having two center fielders. The only danger is whether they each cover so much ground they start feuding over who gets to catch the 'tweeners. "We both cover a ton, so it doesn't really matter who catches it," Presley says. Plus, with McCutchen's speed and veteran status, "whatever he wants, I just let him take it," Presley jokes.
• There is plenty to take from last season, when the Pirates started 47-43, and apply to this year. "Number one, that we can compete," Hurdle says. "We can win games. ... It doesn't matter what's on paper, it doesn't matter what's in the payroll. We execute, we play to our skill sets, we can win games. For four months, we found ways to do that. The challenge of the big-league season, they also have to understand that as well. Everybody's going to have injuries, everybody's going to have slumps. It's about how you battle through them."
• A rising farm system with legitimate prospects. None of them is burning up Triple-A and ready for The Show yet, but they're coming. Pittsburgh's top two picks from last season, pitcher Gerrit Cole and outfielder Josh Bell, promise great things for the future. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is tantalizing. And outfielder Starling Marte really opened some eyes in camp this spring before the Pirates optioned him out. "It was great to see Marte here the time he was here," Hurdle says. "He's an exciting player who is going to be an impactful player at the major-league level when his time is right."
• Pedro Alvarez's past 12 months. He has reached the intersection of Bust and Flame-Out. This isn't to say he's finished. But he had better resurrect himself quickly. He came to camp overweight a year ago, played in only 71 games due in part to a strained thigh and batted an embarrassing .191 with four home runs and 19 RBI and 80 strikeouts in 262 plate appearances. Bad news is, the trend has continued this spring (and he's even in better shape): He's hitting .135 with 18 strikeouts and one walk in 37 at-bats. "The numbers are alarming," Hurdle says. "But ... he understands what we need from him. All we need from Pete is to be Pete. There have been times when he's tried to carry a bigger load than necessary. We've got other guys around him, he can complement them. We're looking for a run producer. That's what he can do. ... We've got to help him find some balance to keep things in perspective. He's always going to be a guy who's going to punch out some. There's great players who strike out 100 times. We need more consistency in the approach, in the plan. He's aware of that. We still have all the confidence in the world Pedro's going to be that guy." The Pirates say he will be the guy to start the season. He can make it easier on all involved if he gets off to a good start.
• Neil Walker hitting cleanup. The Pirates seriously might do it, which speaks more to where they still are than to him. Walker is a very good player, a switch-hitter with value, but he is out of position batting fourth. He has had only 12 home runs in each of the past two seasons. But with Alvarez's regression and Garrett Jones' weakness against left-handers, the Bucs don't have many options.
• The fact that the Pirates played a club-record 52 players last summer is simply more evidence that all of the necessary parts aren't here yet. One thing the Pirates are focused on this spring is putting the ball in play -- only two NL clubs last season had more strikeouts than did Pittsburgh in 2011. "We've got to get on base more," Hurdle says. "We've got to ratchet down the strikeouts. And it's not just about not striking out, it's about having a better two-strike approach. It's about finding ways to grind out at-bats, make meaningful outs, make good outs, make productive outs. That's been a focus this spring and we've handled that much better."
• The Count: 19 consecutive losing seasons for the Pirates, a North American professional sports record. There was brief hope last year the streak would end at 18, but the Pirates couldn't sustain their 47-43 start. "We definitely learned we have the confidence and ability to win," Jones says. "We proved that to ourselves for the first half of the season. Things got out of whack in the second half. Guys were getting tired, injured. We got in a funk we couldn't get out of. We'll take the positives from that and go from there."