Reasons abound to keep an eye on the Pittsburgh Pirates

Reasons abound to keep an eye on the home team this spring

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 26, 2013 

BRADENTON -- The Pittsburgh Pirates opened their 45th spring in Bradenton on Sunday against the Atlanta Braves.

But the team's Grapefruit League schedule really gets going this week with a string of three home games, beginning 1:05 p.m. Tuesday against the Baltimore Orioles.

So why should you keep an eye on the Pirates for the next month are so?

Well, we're glad you asked. There is a plethora of reasons to spend a spring day at tradition-rich McKechnie Field watching the boys of summer work their kinks out in the spring.

But we've narrowed it down to five.

Here they are:

Andrew McCutchen

When it comes to first-round draft picks, the Pirates have had their share of whiffs recently. (See: Danial Moskos and Bryan Bullington).

But they have appeared to strike gold with McCutchen, a Fort Meade native who was taken 11th overall by Pittsburgh in 2005.

After showing flashes of potential during his first three seasons, the fleet-footed centerfield exploded last year, stockpiling a major-league best 194 hits and batting .327 with 31 home runs, 96 RBIs, 20 steals, 107 runs and a .553 slugging percentage.

Baseball took notice -- McCutchen won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, made his second All-Star Team and finished third in the National League's Most Valuable Player race.

McCutchen won't turn 26 until October, leaving him a few years shy of his prime.

So as good as last year was, the best may be yet to come.

Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon

Speaking of smart first-round picks, these two power arms, considered two of the top 15 prospects in all of baseball by and Baseball America, could be fronting Pittsburgh's rotation in a few years.

Local fans caught a glimpse of the pair last summer, when they opened the season with the high Single-A Bradenton Marauders, but considering

both ended the season with promotions (Cole made it to Triple-A, Taillon went 3-0 at Double-A), this will probably be the final chance to see both up close.

Cole and Taillon pitched well during last week's intrasquad game, and it will be interesting to see how they handle major-league hitters if they get into a Grapefruit League game or two.

Renovations, renovations, renovations

Maybe you heard, but 90-year-old McKechnie Field underwent a $10 million facelift, with the centerpiece being a 19,000-square foot boardwalk that wraps around the outfield.

Have a cold beverage at the centerfield tiki bar. Invite some friends and rent out one of the two left-field party decks. Sit in one of the new and improved infield seats, or head out to the newly-constructed left-field bleachers.

Heck, you can spend an entire day watching pitchers work out in the bullpens, which are now located behind the fence in right and left field. Or, if you're set in your ways, the bleachers haven't changed a bit.

Who's next?

Prized prospect Starling Marte had a sterling spring last year and earned a call-up to Pittsburgh later that summer. Infielder Matt Hague played well enough last year to make his first Opening Day roster.

And in the spring of 2009, a then-unknown named Garrett Jones became part of the Pirates plans, and has hit 85 home runs over the last four years, including a career-high 27 last year.

The moral? You never know who is going to turn a spring opportunity into a chance to become an everyday major-leaguer. That's the best part of spring training -- every player and every team is in the mix.

The opponents

Not a Pirates fan? No problem. The Grapefruit League still has more than its share of alluring teams, including the Braves, who brought their star-studded outfield of B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward to Bradenton on Sunday.

Maybe MVP candidate Adam Jones will make the trip from Sarasota today. Or maybe the new-look Toronto Blue Jays will bring the likes of Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie from Dunedin of March 13.

Which one of the Philadelphia Phillies' stud starters will work from McKechnie Field's mound on March 4, and which of the star New York Yankees will come from Tampa on March 17?

And if you love your Tampa Bay Rays but don't feel like heading to Port Charlotte, you can catch them in Bradenton on Wednesday, or March 7 or March 22.

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