Make no mistake - while there are holes to fill among the position players, improvement in the Bucco product will rest squarely on the shoulders of the starting rotation. They bombed last year, winning just 34 games and cobbling together a 5.27 ERA.
The Pirates have gathered a small posse of pitchers in camp to try to stabilize things until a wave of good young arms rises to the top. By and large, we expect them to hold back their young pitchers for another season for developmental reasons.
After Brad Lincoln, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen were spanked in 2010, the suits may have decided that fast-tracking guys is not the way to go.
The tea leaves say that J-Mac, Ohlie, Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia are in, and there's a wide-open competition for the fifth spot, which looks a lot like a shoot-out between Charlie Morton and Scott Olsen, with Brad Lincoln as a dark horse.
McDonald, 26, arrived at the deadline and went 4-5/3.52 in 11 starts in August and September. He has to work past his reliever's mentality of striking out every batter he faces and manage his pitch counts better, but he may end up the best deal of the Huntington era after the Yankee swap that netted Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens.
Ohlendorf, 28, and Correia, 30, hope to have bounce-back years. Both had strong 2009 seasons and hope that 2010 was an anomaly when they combined for 11 wins. Maholm, 28, is the Pirates war horse and highest paid pitcher, but hasn't hit double-digit wins since 2007. And those are the guys that are locks.
Morton, 27, and Lincoln, 25, are looking for redemption after miserable 2010 performances, and Olsen, 26, was added to provide some veteran competition for that final spot.
Jeff Karstens, 28, and Brian Burres, 29, both stuck their fingers in the leaking dike last year with reasonable results, but appear to be on the outside looking in. They may compete for a long spot in the pen, or start the year as veteran insurance at Indy.
To add to the equation, Morton, Hart and Karstens are all out of options and have to get through waivers if left off the 25-man roster, although Hart may start the season on the DL. Lincoln still has an option remaining.
Rudy Owens and Bryan Morris are projected to move up to Indy. The betting line is that they'll be joined in the rotation by Lincoln, Sean Gallagher, and maybe Olsen, who is signed but still has two options remaining, or Burres, or Fernando Nieve or Cesar Valdez. Lots of choices on the menu.
Mike Crotta, Kyle McPherson and Tony Watson, all protected on the 40-man roster, have to get some innings in, too, as does Donnie Veal. They too should be in Indy this coming season, but may land in the bullpen.
That leaves Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Aaron Thompson, Aaron Pribanic, Brian Leach, Brett Lorin and Tim Alderson battling for innings in Altoona. All have some aspect of their game to work on; spending a little more time in the slow lane might be a blessing in disguise. But they all have their eyes aimed at Indy and beyond, with Wilson closest to taking the step.
They have to keep moving; Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Stetson Allie, Colton Cain and Zach Von Rosenberg lead a strong crew of young arms in the lower levels waiting to climb the organizational ladder.
The Pirates are starting to build some depth in their pitching. With the sheer numbers and guys that will have to be added to the 40-man roster, we'd be surprised if the FO didn't begin packaging some arms and dealing them for organizational needs, just like every strong organization in baseball.
Until then, it's quite a crowd this year, unlike most seasons. We're hoping the Pirate evaluators can make the numbers game a good problem to have.