As far as bringing players to the Majors and their service time starting, what's the deal? I am referring to bringing Pedro Alvarez to the big leagues. Did the Pirates benefit last year when they brought Andrew McCutchen up after the season started?
-- Nicky K., Steubenville, Ohio

There were two things to be gained in keeping McCutchen in the Minors until June. (Well, there ended up being an unexpected third -- creating a valuable trade commodity in Nyjer Morgan -- but the Pirates hadn't anticipated that initially). First, it gave McCutchen a bit more time to develop. Even he partially credited that extra time in the Minors for his ability to be so consistent during his first four months in the Majors.

Second, there were financial implications. Even though the Pirates never cited this as a reason for starting McCutchen in the Minors, don't think they weren't aware of the dollars that would be saved by holding McCutchen back in Triple-A for a few months. Here's why: Players become arbitration-eligible after three full years of Major League service time and then can enter free agency after another three seasons. In other words, after six full seasons in the Majors, a player can become a free agent.

If McCutchen had started the 2009 season with the Pirates, he would have reached that six-year mark after the 2014 season. By missing the first two months of last season, however, McCutchen will be short of six full years of service time at the end of the 2014 season. That means the Pirates will retain McCutchen for all of 2015 before the outfielder could test free agency.

If the Pirates hold off on bringing Alvarez up -- which I fully expect they will -- the club will gain the benefit of having the highly-touted third baseman a year longer than it would if he were to make his debut on April 5.

Jen: With the number of young prospects the Pirates have getting ready to come to the Major Leagues, is there any discussion to lock them up early like Milwaukee did with Ryan Braun and Tampa Bay did with Evan Longoria?
-- Bill H., Kenosha, Wisc.

Whoa, can we let the kids get here first? No, in all seriousness, I assume you're talking about the likes of Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln, all of whom are expected to be in Pittsburgh before the end of the year. Management has certainly discussed the concept of locking up young players that it believes are a part of the organization's long-term core. Think: Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm last year. However, you don't hand out those contracts until players establish themselves and prove that they are worth the hype they received in the Minors. The reality is that some can't-miss prospects do miss, and teams can't risk guaranteeing millions of dollars before a player proves himself over a decent period of time.

Longoria -- who inked a nine-year deal just a week after making his Major League debut -- is an exception. Your question is one that we can come back to in a few years when the Pirates very well might be trying to lock up some of these now-young prospects. But let's let them establish themselves in the Majors first.

Rumor is that the Rangers may be interested in Ramon Vazquez. With Vazquez being pretty deep on the depth chart, would the Pirates consider him expendable? If so, what sort of player do you think we could get?
-- Phillip J., Connellsville, Pa.

First off, when my MLB.com colleague and Rangers writer, T.R. Sullivan, mentioned Texas' potential interest in Vazquez, he did so hypothetically. The Rangers are definitely in need of a utility infielder, and Vazquez's success with Texas in 2007-08 left a good taste there, even though he left for Pittsburgh. That's why his name was listed as a possibility.

If -- and remember we're staying hypothetical here -- the Pirates were to trade Vazquez to the Rangers, they likely won't get much of a package back. Vazquez is due to make $2 million this season, and if his numbers are similar to what they were in 2009, that's really not a great bargain. The Rangers very well could ask the Pirates to eat some of that salary. And if they don't, the Pirates wouldn't get anything more than a marginal Minor Leaguer back in return.

So, would the Pirates consider trading Vazquez for close to nothing? Yes, and there are a few reasons why. First, he can be replaced. Vazquez hit .230 last year and showed no better than average defensive range. Second, eliminating Vazquez from the bench picture would open up a spot for someone else who has more long-term upside. Instead of having just one spot for Brandon Moss, Delwyn Young and John Raynor to fight over, you would now have two. And with Bobby Crosby being the primary backup infielder, the Pirates aren't expected to use Vazquez extensively.

During Spring Training, do the Pirates work on base running? Last year there were far too many mental mistakes on the basepaths. Watching some of the games I couldn't believe, for Major Leaguers, how many mistakes they made on the bases.
-- Ed R., Sr., Leckrone, Pa.

Yes, the Pirates work on base running during Spring Training. Actually, they work on all sorts of fundamentals -- relay throws, pickoff moves, bunting, etc. It can be monotonous to watch and participate in, but these basics are all repeated exhaustively.

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Now executing fundamentals on a practice field at Pirate City is certainly different than doing so in a full stadium in June with the game on the line. All this practice can't guarantee flawless execution. But the hope is that this repetition creates instinctual habits that take over in a game situation.

We are heading to Spring Training, and it will be our first trip there. Can you give us any tips on when we can visit practice, etc.? In addition to Pirates suggestions, any other fun tips for the area or for restaurants would be great.
-- Rose W., Poquoson, Va.

I know Rose isn't the only one coming down to Bradenton, Fla., for Spring Training, so I figured a few of you might be interested in local suggestions.

On the baseball side of things, the Pirates play their home games at McKechnie Field. There isn't really anything to do right around the ballpark, but gates open two hours before game time, so you can catch part of batting practice if you get there then. Anyone interested in watching Minor League games and/or the Minor Leaguers practice can head over to Pirate City on 27th Street East. The access there is pretty good.

On the non-baseball end, there is the beach, of course. Bradenton has its own beaches, though I recommend heading a bit south to Siesta Key in Sarasota, Fla. St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota is another worthwhile stop, and when you're there, be sure to enjoy a meal at The Columbia restaurant. If you're looking to eat on the beach, the Sun House and The Sandbar restaurants in Bradenton are good options. And to satisfy your sweet tooth, try Sweetberries Frozen Custard, the Shake Pit or Mixon's orange swirl ice cream.

Hope that helps.