New slide rule could positively impact Pirates

The MLB implemented new rules yesterday regarding sliding into second base, a move that could potentially benefit the Pirates.

Pittsburgh lost two shortstops, Jordy Mercer and Jung Ho Kang, to takeout slides last season.

The MLB Players Association plans to consider players’ feedback throughout spring training as they adapt to the revised rules.

The rule mandates that “a baserunner must attempt a “bona fide slide” by making contact with the ground in front of the base, being able to reach the base with his hand or foot and remain on the bag or sliding without changing his path to make contact with an infielder,” according to pirates.mlb.com.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark visited four teams so far this spring, including the Pirates, to discuss the new rule among other topics of interest.

Injury update: Kang

Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang returned to action Tuesday in the team’s first full-squad workout of the season.

Kang, listed as a limited participant, ran fielding drills and stood in the box during on-field batting practice.

Kang underwent an open reduction and internal fixation of a displaced tibial plateau fracture with a lateral meniscus repair after suffering a season-ending injury during a collision at second base during the the Sept. 17 Chicago Cubs game. The Pirates expect Kang to join the team in April.

In today’s practice, Kang hit against batting-practice-speed pitches in the cage. Although doctors cleared Kang to swing, he has not been cleared for baserunning drills or violent movements.

Pitchers test protective caps

Pirates closer Mark Melancon and reliever Jared Hughes tested out a new Major League Baseball-approved protective cap during Sunday’s spring training workout, according to pirates.mlb.com.

The cap, designed to improve pitchers’ safety on the mound, came at the request of 20 big leaguers who agreed to test them this spring. Boombang, the company that created the caps, created the design that features a hard visor to protect the pitcher’s temples.

Deemed the “Half Cap,” the gear earned positive reviews from both pitchers.

The idea of making helmets a required part of the MLB began in 1940 at the MLB All-Star Game in Chicago. The National League officially adopted the use of a helmet in 1941 and required the use of batting helmets in 1956, followed by the American League passing the rule in 1958.

Pitchers and catchers begin spring training

Pitchers and catchers of the Pittsburgh Pirates practiced today after officially reporting to the Pirate City complex Wednesday in Bradenton, Florida to begin spring training.

The team hopes to move to the top of the National League Central after narrowly missing the postseason for the second straight season in the National League Wild Card Game. The Pirates can count on their returning players as well as new additions, notably first baseman John Jaso, to replicate a 98-win season.

After trading Neil Walker and releasing Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates look to employ a deep lineup for success this season.

Starters Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong pitched from the mound Wednesday morning under pitching coach Ray Searage’s supervision.

The team plans to focus on base running this season. The Pirates ranked 12th among the 30 major league teams in base running last season.

Melancon nearing his career’s end?

This year might be relief pitcher Mark Melancon’s last season as a Pirate, and possibly, MLB player.

The 30-year-old from Arvada, Colorado signed a one-year, $9.65 million contract with the Pirates, a $4 million increase from last season. After this season, he will be a free agent.

Melancon’s ERA gradually rose from 2013’s 1.39, 2014’s 1.90 and now 2015’s 2.23. His fastball speed has fallen from a career-best 93.3 mph to 91.5 mph. On top of that, his curveball has decreased nearly 5 mph over his career, from 84.0 mph to 80.9 mph.

The 2015 Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year award winner led the majors in saves and set a club record with 51 saves in 53 tries in 2015. Despite this impressive performance, Melancon can’t seem to return to his top pitch speeds that were plentiful in his early Pirates days.

As he nears his 31st birthday on March 28, Melancon’s age arguably plays an increasingly large factor in his role as relief pitcher.

Only time will tell what the future has stored for Melancon.

Pirates will be playoff contender

The Pittsburgh Pirates stand a realistic chance to compete in the playoffs again this season.

The Pirates have competed in the National League Wild Card Game each of the past three years, seeing increasing momentum each year.

The Pirates return Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to the mound, arguably one of the best front rotation combinations. Cole finished last season with 202 strikeouts in 208 innings. In the outfield, Pittsburgh boasts Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. McCutchen hit 23 homeruns and achieved a career high-tying 96 RBIs last season, according to pirates.mlb.com.

McCutchen, who played with a banged-up leg last season, will return to the roster completely healthy. Jung Ho Kang returns this season from a meniscus tear and fractured tibia in his left leg. Josh Harrison also returns from a left thumb injury.

Between players returning from injuries and new additions to the roster, the Pirates will be a contender for the playoffs.

Roster changes may pose problem for Pirates during spring training

The Pittsburgh Pirates report to Bradenton, Florida on February 18 to begin spring training after several roster changes.

In most recent news, Pittsburgh sent right-handed pitcher A.J. Schugel to the Indianapolis Indians. The Pirates acquired left-handed pitcher Jesse Biddle from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for right-handed pitcher Yoervis Medina, according to pirates.mlb.com.

The Pirates signed several free agents to a minor league contract, including catcher Ed Easley, shortstop Juan Diaz, left-handed pitcher Jim Fuller, left-handed pitcher Kelvin Marte, shortstop Victor Ngoepe, right-handed pitcher Guido Knudson, right-handed pitcher Daniel Bard, catcher Nate Irving and third baseman Anderson Feliz.

The Pirates extended spring training invitations to non-roster right-fielder Antoan Richardson, non-roster catcher Reese McGuire, non-roster right-handed pitcher Chad Kuhl, non-roster third baseman Dan Gamache, non-roster right-handed pitcher Trevor Williams, non-roster catcher Jacob Stallings, non-roster shortstop Adam Frazier, non-roster left-handed pitcher Steven Brault, Marte and Knudson.

Shortstop Jung Ho Kang will likely return to the Pirates in April after tearing his meniscus and fracturing his tibia in his left leg on September 17 in a 9-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs. Pedro Alvarez’s retirement brought in first baseman John Jaso and first baseman Jason Rogers. A.J. Burnett’s retirement will require pitcher Gerrit Cole to continue his success on the mound (202 strikeouts across 208 innings for the 2015 regular season).

Perhaps the most devastating loss to the Pirates, the trade of hometown second baseman Neil Walker to the New York Mets on December 9 for left-handed pitcher Jon Niese will leave a hole on second base to be filled by third baseman Josh Harrison.