The Bucs got their catcher before the baseball meetings; now they're gonna have to get crackin' on lining up some arms to toss the ball to Russell Martin.
As of now, the sure things in the rotation are RHP AJ Burnett, who will be 36 next season, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, who will be 34, and RHP James McDonald, 28. AJ and Wandy have been fairly dependable throughout their careers; J-Mic has to figure out how to finish out a season. Gone are Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard.
At best, that leaves two rotation spots open and some needed depth building; most MLB teams like to be eight or nine deep in starters to begin the year.
Those two spots were filled last season by LHP Jeff Locke and RHP Kyle McPherson. Both had flashes of competence, but Locke was plagued by nibbling around the dish, falling into hitters counts and never lasting past six innings in six starts, four outings going five frames or less. McPherson was stronger, but began the 2012 year rehabbing a dead arm and was just pulled from winter ball with the same complaint. That leaves him an iffy candidate to take the hill thirty+ times in 2013.
And make no mistake - when building the back end of the rotation, the one thing a team likes to see is a guy who can eat some innings and not kill the bullpen, and neither Locke nor McPherson has shown that ability yet. So the FO has brought in a few once highly touted but now bargain bin pitchers to compete with them.
LHP Andy Oliver, 25, came over from Detroit. The big lefty pumps smoke and has a decent breaking ball, but has had huge problems locating. He's walked 21 in 31 major league IP, and in his minor league career has issued five free passes per nine innings. Oliver left Detroit's camp as the #5 starter, but ended up working most of the year in AAA Toledo.
RHP Zach Stewart, 26, was acquired from Boston. A third round pick in 2008, the sinker/slider pitcher has yet to translate his upside in either AAA or the show. The FO also brought in RHP Vince Mazzaro, 26, from KC. he was a third round selection in 2005, but has had more success working from the pen than as part of the rotation. All three players are on the 40-man roster, and Oliver and Stewart have an option remaining; Mazzaro doesn't.
Other guys the Pirates have that figure to enter the conversation sometime during the season are RHPs Gerritt Cole, Rick Van Den Hurk and Phil Irwin at Indy, along with Charlie Morton, who should be ready to take the hill after TJ surgery sometime during the summer. LHP Justin Wilson has the upside, once the Bucs decide whether his future lies in the rotation or as a back-end reliever.
So they have a small army of hurlers in contention for that fifth spot, but two questions remain - do they want a pair of unproven arms in the rotation, at least during the first three months of the year before Morton and Cole are ready, and do they have a fallback if McDonald can't get back on the bike?
That's going to require them to find at least one more arm with a track record. From what we've seen - and they've been associated with just about every third tier pitcher in the market, which tells us they're at least acting with some due diligence - these are the most likely candidates on the market:
LHP John Lannan, 28, was non-tendered by the Nats and is a player the Bucs have long eyed. The lefty has a 4.01 ERA over six seasons, but with an unwieldy 1.424 WHIP. Last year, Washington shipped him and his $5M salary to AAA, but called him up to replace Stephen Strasburg in September. In six starts, Lannan went 4-1/4.13 and lasted six frames per outing. He's made 30+ starts in three of the four seasons he was a regular rotation arm. With that durability and being a rotation-balancing lefty, our guess is that he's the most likely guy for Pittsburgh to be in on.
RHP Mike Pelfrey, 28, was non-tendered by the Mets. He's 6'7"; which of course tantalizes the Bucs, even if he's not a power pitcher, and has worked at least 184 innings from 2008-11 with a lifetime 4.36 ERA. On the other side of the coin, Scott Boras is his agent, and he had TJ surgery in April. Pelfrey said that he'd be ready by opening day, and is a guy the Bucs have been reported to have some interest in.
The dark horse is LHP Francisco Liriano, 29. Yah, he's thrown to 5.09 & 5.34 ERAs in last two years. But he's had a couple of very nice seasons as part of his resume and still has decent stuff. He intrigues more than a few teams, and the Bucs will check his availability after the market begins to take form when Zach Grienke and the upper level of pitchers settle on deals.
Other pitchers the Pirates have been mentioned as checking out are Milwaukee's Manny Parro and Atlanta's Jairs Jurrjens, though we think they have red flags that even the Bucs can't ignore. And there will be more arms coming free down the line when 40-mans are readjusted for future signings.