Separating meaningful performances from meaningless ones in spring training is not an easy task. With some players tuning up and others fighting for spots on every single team, playing fields are far from level. Some players are working on specific tweaks -- pitchers are refining pitches, hitters are working on various aspects of their swings, etc. -- and so even results might not mean anything.
Still, the front offices and coaches are evaluating something. These games are nominally meaningless since they don't count in the standings, but there are things that are happening that are meaningful. I won't pretend to be in the heads of John Russell or his staff or Neal Huntington, but there are a few things I'll be watching a little more closely than others as exhibition games start this week.
Perhaps the one that will be the most immediately meaningful in the 2010 regular season is Kevin Hart's control. Despite the recent talk about Brad Lincoln making the rotation right out of the gate, I just don't think that's terribly likely for a number of reasons. That makes Hart the odds-on favorite to be the fifth starter when the season starts, as per the statements made by JR when camp started. Hart's problems last year all seemed to stem from a lack of control, so his control is what's important to watch here. Since we know that Joe Kerrigan is working with Hart on his mechanics, I really think that everything he does in terms of results (ie, is he getting hit hard, his ERA, etc.) is secondary to whether or not his control has improved.
There's also the battle for the last roster spot to watch. This one might be harder to gauge because picking between guys like Moss, Raynor, Pearce, and Young comes down as much to organizational philosophy as it does to spring training performance. Pearce gives a nice platoon option for guys like Jones and Clement, Young plays a wide variety of positions decently, Raynor and Moss bring good defense to the table. It seems to me that none of these guys can really afford to hit poorly this spring, but the decision will likely be based on more than that.
Speaking of Clement, keep an eye on Jeff Clement's defense. Actually, just keep an eye on how often the team and the media-types refer to him as "uncomfortable." If that's happening a lot, I'd wager it's not a great sign for him.
In the "less likely to mean something" category, it'd be a good early sign if Lastings Milledge shows some power in camp. There are a lot of factors to keep in mind here, including level of competition and the sometimes crazy McKechnie Field winds, but if we're operating with the assumption that his hand injury cost him power at the end of last season it'd be nice to see that that's no longer the case before the season starts. Of course, he's mostly assured of both a roster spot and a starting job and so we don't really know what JR and Don Long have him working on right now and so it's not really worth getting worked up about him either way this spring.
The same thing applies to the mythical power swing of Jose Tabata. Something to look for and something it would be nice to see, but not the end of the world if we don't see it. I don't think there's a lot to look for in the race for the last bullpen spot either. Either the Pirates will give Dan McCutchen a chance, or they'll toss an inning-eater in there. The identity of the inning-eater might be determined on the mound, but it's pretty inconsequential either way.
Beyond that, I'm not sure there's much that can be read directly into over the next couple weeks (if I'm forgetting something I'm sure you'll let me know about it). It's possible that Bobby Crosby could completely outperform Ronny Cedeno and steal the starting shortstop spot or that Pedro Alvarez could strike out 25 times in a row or something, but those sorts of things are pretty obvious when they happen. In any case, this is what I'll be following most closely and by extension probably what I'll be writing the most about over the next couple weeks.