With the return of Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett, who was flipped for Eddie Volquez again, the Pirate rotation is shaping up for 2015. Gerrit Cole is healthy, Charlie Morton is hoped to be on schedule to start the year, and the group of Vance Worley, Jeff Locke, Stolmy Pimentel and Brandon Cumpton are looking for back-end spots.
Radhames Liz is a swingman who the Pirates will tinker with, as his stuff has always been better than his performance. The righty has the potential to become a starter, though he's probably slated for the pen this year. Clayton Richard is another reclamation project, and the southpaw will start at Indy while the Bucs try to rekindle his San Diego mojo.
Jamison Taillon and Nick Kingham will both begin the year at Indy, and for different reasons have iffy estimated times of arrival. Taillon is back after missing a year due to TJ surgery, and will knock off some rust with his innings monitored by the Pirates. Kingham has upside but not many upper level innings; he's worked 144 frames in AA and 88 at Indy. Still, he's been steady and could reach the show before Jamison, perhaps as soon as the All-Star break.
Tyler Glasnow, Adrian Sampson, Casey Sadler and Luis Heredia are the top group below Taillon and Kingham.
Some of that depth may come in handy in the early going. Morton is recovering from hip labrum surgery and Burnett from a sports hernia procedure. Both are said to be on track to open the season on time, but the key will be whether or not they can get their spring work in. Lack of Florida innings could delay one or both guys' return (AJ is the better bet to be ready at the bell), albeit for a short time. The Bucs will need a fifth starter three times in April, so their availability may impact the early form of the staff.
But the telling battle will be for the last spot; Cole, Liriano, Morton and Burnett are set in stone. The competition will have an organizational impact, as well - Worley, Locke, Pimentel, and Liz are out of options; Cumpton has one remaining. That should prove an interesting sidebar for the spring.
The pen is in good shape as far as the top guys go - Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Antonio Bastardo and Jared Hughes are set, with Bastardo a solid Plan B acquisition after Pat Neshek signed elsewhere. Big John Holdzkem had a nice 2014 debut; he also has all his options intact, which could be a factor in his April destination.
Will the Pirates try to carry, at least early on, the losers of the rotation wars? The FO also has LOOGY Bobby LaFromboise and Rob Scahill stashed on the 40-man roster, and a couple of interesting arms like Blake Wood and Brad Lincoln are part of the seven-man group of non-roster invitees. So that's where the fiercest competition should take place in the spring, among the crew of long and bridge pitchers.
One thing Neal Huntington did was quietly put his stamp of approval this year on the pitching depth and the organizational support behind it. There was no reclamation/bounce-back project on his shopping list this year, quite unlike seasons past.
Brett Anderson, Jason Hammel, Justin Masterson, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Morrow, Jake Peavy and yes, even Eddie Volquez went by the boards without a gentle whiff of public interest shown by the Pirates. Some inked pretty nice contracts, and it could be that the rest of the league has caught on to the Pirates' milking of a market inefficiency. It could also be the Bucco organization is finally filling the pipeline, too.
Neal did put together his usual cattle call of relievers, more to build depth over a long season than to really challenge for a back-end spot. Bastardo replaced Justin Wilson, and Pirates probably could use one more seventh inning arm, especially with Bryan Morris and Jason Grilli gone. But that looks to be the only hole, and perhaps one that can be filled internally. Remember, Watson and Hughes were both converted starters, and they worked out without skipping a beat. Locke and Liz both potentially fit that mold.
This is as deep as Pirate pitching has been in the Nutting era. When AJ, even during his farewell tour year, is the #4 pitcher, you have a pretty solid staff on paper. One more late inning arm will fill the bullpen bill. Taillon and Kingham are on the rotation's horizon, and the pitching is in as good a place as it's been for quite a spell.