Bucs have several decisions to make

Bucs have several decisions to make

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Pirates opened Spring Training with a number of unknowns -- among them deciding on a center fielder, solidifying the bench and filling out the bullpen.

Now, at the one-week countdown until Opening Day, the team is still waiting for some final answers to come out this week.

While the starting pitchers will be using this last week in Florida to extend their workload, the Pirates' decision makers have plenty to keep them busy with as well.

The battle between Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth for the starting center-field job was the only position battle that the Pirates needed to watch play out over the past month. Manager John Russell has still not named his starter yet, though based on results from Spring Training, McLouth would appear to be the winner.

Morgan's batting average has dipped to near the Mendoza line, while McLouth has reached base in 12 of the 14 games in which he's played. McLouth has also shown some pop in his bat, knocking eight extra-base hits this spring to Morgan's one.

Assuming the job goes to McLouth, the decision then becomes whether to keep Morgan on the team as a backup outfielder. Russell and general manager Neal Huntington have both said recently that the option of carrying both outfielders is intriguing.

"I don't think that it's going to be an either-or [situation] as we go through the course of the season from March 31, that it's going to be that person and only that person," Huntington said. "I think if they are both on the club, then they'll both get playing time."

However, there is always the chance that Morgan could be sent down to Triple-A to ensure that he gets enough at-bats to stay sharp.

Then there are the bench spots to fill, though again, there has been some recent clarity as to who has won those spots. Catcher Ryan Doumit is a given, and with the team's decision not to carry a third catcher, that opens up an extra bench spot for another bat.

Luis Rivas seems to have all but wrapped up the middle infield backup role, while Chris Gomez has been the front-runner since camp opened to backup at the corner infield spots. The fourth spot will go to an outfielder -- the loser of the McLouth/Morgan battle or possibly Kevin Thompson.

And after picking up his production at the plate during the second half of the month and convincing management that he can play both corner infield and corner outfield positions, Doug Mientkiewicz may have done enough to earn that final roster spot. Add in the fact that the Pirates are impressed by his veteran presence, and Mientkiewicz seems to have the upper hand for a spot on the bench.

"Doug was brought in knowing that he'd probably have a very difficult time making the club," Huntington said. "He has since shown that he can be adequate at third and in left and right, so he's increased his odds at being able to make our club.

"But Doug was brought in here with the idea that he would make our camp better if he were in here for the six weeks of Spring Training. He's done that. He's made an impact. And we may have been put in a situation to carry that throughout the season."

Also to be determined this week is the makeup of the Pirates' bullpen. There are four relief spots still available and 11 pitchers still trying to lay claim to one of them.

The fact that the Pirates have to deal with technicalities, such out-of-option pitchers, pitchers with escape clauses in their contracts and Rule 5 Draft rules, complicates the decision process some. However, the hazy state of the bullpen should have some clarity in the next few days, as those decisions must soon be made.

Though the Pirates aren't likely to make a sweeping wave of cuts all on one day this week, expect the number of players still in Major League camp to begin dwindling as early as Tuesday morning. As of Monday, the club was still carrying 37 players in camp -- 20 pitchers, two catchers, nine infielders and six outfielders.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.