Will Pellas, my blogging partner in crime, wondered "what's going on here" with the Bucco pitching, his main bone of contention being the Pirates seem happy to develop guys up to AAA and then forget about them. And ya know what - he's got a point worth arguing.
The Bucs went into the off season thin in starting pitching after letting Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens walk. They were, in justice, the bottom end of the rotation, and it looked like Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke would step in to take their spots, at least until Charlie Morton returned later this summer. And he has to stick; he's out of options once he's finished rehab
That left them Justin Wilson in Indy, and the FO brought in Andy Oliver to bolster the reserves, along with Jeanmar Gomez, all three stronger in potential than performance. It was a staff that could use another vet to solidify the rotation and depth.
Well, they brought in three guys - Karstens found out that you can go home again, Jonathan Sanchez signed a minor league contract, and Francisco Liriano, broken wing and all, finally struck a deal acceptable to him and the pencil pushers.
That leaves Pittsburgh with ten starting pitchers with at least a cup of coffee in the show - AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jeanmar Gomez and Andrew Oliver. Gerrit Cole and Justin Wilson are waiting to get their call from Indy, with Jameson Taillon, Phil Irwin and a couple of others in the pipeline.
Gomez is the only wanna-be with option problems. But Tom Singer of MLB.com pointed out an unpublicized fact: Sanchez has an opt out clause in his deal that's triggered on March 24th if he's not on the MLB roster. Given that the Pirates would like two lefties and Liriano won't be ready to go when camp breaks, the Bucs will have to decide between Sanchez and Locke, who has an option remaining, for that fifth spot. Sticky, maybe, but neither of those situations are real problems to open the season.
But there's a domino game that's going to be played as the season goes on. Liriano will be back by May; Morton by July, and Cole whenever he shows he ready. So unless there are a rash of bum wings or bad pitching - which, given past history, may occur - the Pirates will have some real shuffling, and all possibly before the All Star break.
If they get through the year with their pitching intact, 2014 will be a real poser. Rodriguez and Liriano, depending on how the year goes, may vest next season. AJ will be a free agent, and a question mark to return. Even if he repeats his 2012 year, he'll be 37 and coming off a $16.5M deal that those nice New York Yankees helped to pay; that won't be so next season. But he would be a handy and wildly popular head to keep around to tutor Cole and presumably Taillon. J-Mac and Morton will be back and under control, though without options.
Those options will come into play big-time in 2014. Locke, McPherson, and Oliver will be out of them, unless one of them sticks on the 25-man for the entire season. So the FO has put itself in a bit of a pickle for not only this year, but next. McPherson, Wilson and Oliver could use a little Indy time; Locke has about done all you can at AAA. But the Pirates have built a little depth that it's unwilling to tap at the big league level, and it's probably not fair to put the upper level farm guys in a make-or-break spot at camp next season. It puts undue pressure on the evaluation process, too.
It may work itself out; performance, injuries and deals have a way of flattening the curve. Pitching is the coin of the realm, and the Pirates are trying to pay their share of the freight. And of course, there's no guarantee that that sheer numbers will translate into MLB depth.
But to us, it seems like the FO is still wavering on a plan; they just can't seem to resist toying with flawed but upside guys. They're stuck in the limbo of building a future and winning today. Maybe the way the roster is now constructed, that's understandable. They are a couple bricks shy of a load unless everything breaks their way.
But sooner or later they're going to have to strike a happy medium and make a commitment to the minor league system, per their blueprint. They could start by showing a little confidence in the guys they have rather than trawling for help that may in the long run stifle the teams' development rather than foster it.