Pirates go to Bradenton with quite a few questions to answer

The Associated Press
1. What can we expect from the front of the rotation?

The front? Surely you mean the back, right? Usually the front of the rotation is the portion teams can count on. The Pirates have talent there. They also have questions.

Gerrit Cole pitched 200 innings and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2015. Last season, he was hurt three times, including the dreaded elbow issue, and made 21 starts. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington recently declared Cole’s offseason all systems go, so perhaps a return to form for the 26-year-old righty is in store.

On the opposite side of the road was Jameson Taillon, who after missing two seasons due to injury pitched well in his debut last year. He completed 1652/3 innings in his first year after pitching zero innings since 2013 (he did pitch in extended spring training and fall instructionals last year). The workload provides Taillon a nice base heading into this season, and his zeal for taking care of himself is Melancon-esque, but how his arm bounces back remains to be seen.

And will we see the Ivan Nova the Yankees traded away with a 4.90 ERA, or the one that never walked a guy and was lights out in August and September?

2. Does Andrew McCutchen bounce back?

He vexed us all last year. Was he pressing? Bad strike zone? Thumb injury? Lack of patience? Whatever the case, McCutchen’s .766 OPS was the lowest of his career. His OPS+, which normalizes for league and ballpark fell from 144 (44 percent better than league average) to 103.

The former MVP emerged in August. From the beginning of the month through the end of the season his OPS was .852 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio, alarmingly out of whack to that point, normalized.

More than the Pirates’ success hinges on McCutchen’s performance. He is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, and with the team unlikely to extend him, they will field trade offers this season. Whether last season looks like a blip or a trend will impact the quality of those offers.

3. How will the new outfield alignment affect the defense?

Everybody slid one spot over. Starling Marte will play center, McCutchen will play right and Gregory Polanco will play left. Here’s the fun part: All three of them are participating in the World Baseball Classic for countries which should advance to the later rounds, which not only reduces the amount of spring training reps in the new alignment but could force them to play a different position than their new one for their WBC team.

McCutchen has never played right field in his professional career. Polanco has played 45 games in left field in eight pro seasons, and almost exclusively right at the major league level.

4. What will happen with Jung Ho Kang?

Entering the weekend, a court in South Korea set a Feb. 22 trial date for Kang to deal with his December DUI arrest. That could affect the visa process. A State Department official told the Post-Gazette in December that the consular officer reviewing visa cases might require a medical examination to determine whether there is a visa ineligibility if someone has been charged with drunk driving.

Kang can request to move the trial, according to a report from Yonhap News Agency, but it is unclear if he will. He also has not yet been punished by MLB or the Pirates, and has agreed to follow the joint treatment board’s recommendations.

5. Is the NL Central Division within reach?

The Cubs team that won 103 games and the World Series last season returns relatively intact. They lost Aroldis Chapman, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler and Jason Hammel. But Soler brought them back Wade Davis. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant all return, as do four starters: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks.