Pirates have many options in pitching staff

A lot of Major League Baseball teams have been making big noises in the offseason free-agent signing and trade departments.

So far, the Pirates haven’t been one of them.

But as the annual winter meetings in Florida closed Thursday, the Pirates did take steps to bolster an already-strong pitching staff on which there are still a couple of questions.

Whether veteran A.J. Burnett will return is anybody’s guess. The righthander who led the Pirates in victories with 16 in 2012 but was snubbed in favor of upstart Gerrit Cole for the starting spot in the deciding fifth game of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals may have a personal ax to grind.

Or he may not. Burnett deemed his return to the big leagues for 2014 only a 50-50 proposition during the 2013 regular season, and as each day goes by this offseason, that return seems more and more unlikely.

Lefthander Jeff Locke endured a season of two halves in 2013, posting an 8-2 record and 2.15 earned run average that earned him a berth on the National League all-star team in July, but plummeting in the second half, and winning just two of seven starts with an ERA that ballooned to over six runs a game.

Whether Locke will return to last year’s first-half form, or merely fall by the wayside as did once-promising righthander James McDonald, is still a question to be answered.

But the rest of the Pirates’ starting rotation remains on firm footing, especially with highly-touted prospect Jameson Taillon expected to be summoned from Class AAA Indianapolis by midseason.

Righthander Charlie Morton’s strong comeback from Tommy John elbow surgery (7-4 record, 3.26 earned run average in 2013) earned him a recent three-year, $21-million dollar contract extension. Cole, the former top Major League draft pick out of UCLA, won 10 regular-season games despite not coming up to the big leagues until mid-June. He also pitched the Pirates to a victory over the Cardinals in the second game of the NLDS.

“Morton’s got filthy stuff,” said catcher Tony Sanchez during a recent visit to Altoona. “He’s got a great arm, he’s a really good pitcher, and I’m happy that [the Pirates] extended him. He’s going to be really good.”

Lefty Francisco Liriano, like Morton, also bounced back from a poor 2012 season and broken non-pitching arm suffered in a household incident last winter to lead the Bucs’ staff in wins with 16 in 2013.

The Pirates also signed veteran righthander Edinson Volquez earlier this week.

“With Gerrit Cole, a healthy Liriano, and a healthy Charlie Morton for a whole season, I think things will only get better,” said long-time Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown. “Those three guys weren’t with the team last year until June.”


n The Pirates probably missed the boat earlier this offseason by letting veteran free-agent outfielder Marlon Byrd escape to the Philadelphia Phillies. Byrd’s acquisition in the second half of last season was one of Pirate general manager Neal Huntington’s biggest coups. The Pirates still must address questions at first base, right field and shortstop.

n The St. Louis Cardinals, with their tandem of good young starting pitchers, won 97 regular-season games, the National League Central Division, and the National League championship in 2013. The Cardinals will miss veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran’s bat, but Beltran’s signing with the Yankees should give Philipsburg native Matt Adams plenty of increased playing time and visibility at first base. Adams backed up all-star Allen Craig there last year, but Craig will be moving to the outfield this season.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com