With the first spring training game for the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday, Feb. 26, it's yet another reminder that the 2014 MLB season is fast approaching. Competition for roster spots will be a focal point throughout the next month, especially with notable players departing for new teams. One of the areas in question is the starting rotation.
After winning the National League Wild Card Game in a dramatic setting in PNC Park against the Cincinnati Reds, the Pirates were beaten in five games by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. The organization's first taste of the postseason in 21 years has risen the expectation level of the fanbase for the upcoming season, and with that, the focus on improving the perceived weak areas of the roster.
In spring training, the Pirates will look to younger, less experienced players to fill in some roles while some acquisitions this winter have been for proven commodities that have sputtered recently.
Gone are the 2013 midseason arrivals of Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd, John Buck and Kyle Farnsworth.
So, too, are familiar faces A.J. Burnett, Garrett Jones, Chris Leroux, James McDonald and Michael McKenry.
Those departures have come with questions regarding the replacements, along with storylines around how the team will perform as it currently stands. There is still time for pieces to be added that could help this season, but as it stands, one of the several talking points to follow throughout the season will be the starting staff.
Over the course of the offseason, no one seemed to have any idea whether Burnett was returning or retiring.
In October, Burnett told CBS Pittsburgh's Colin Dunlap: "I'll be back with the Pittsburgh Pirates or retire."
Then, in November, the Pirates declined to tender a qualifying offer of $14.1 million to the right-hander which would have given the team draft-pick compensation when he left.
In January, pitching coach Ray Searage reportedly thought that Burnett was "leaning towards retirement," as per MLB.com's Tom Singer.
But, as Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly reported Feb. 12, Burnett chose the Philadelphia Phillies.
Filling the void on the field is just one aspect of the role Burnett played in the Pirates clubhouse. His leadership has been crucial in shaping the mindset of this young Pirates roster.
Who will step up in Burnett's absence? Francisco Liriano?
He certainly re-established his dominance in 2013, winning National League Comeback Player of the Year.
But in terms of filling an actual slot in the rotation, who steps up?
Jeff Locke was solid up until the July 31 trade deadline last year, posting a 9-3 record and a 2.36 ERA which earned him an All-Star appearance. August and September were both disasters, however, as the then-25-year-old totaled a 1-5 record in nine starts. The sharp decline in performance led to his absence from the postseason roster.
Edinson Volquez, who signed for $5 million in the offseason, will look to seize a spot in the starting rotation and follow a path similar to that of Liriano.
In 32 starts between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, Volquez tallied a 9-12 record with a 5.71 ERA. More troubling was the 77 walks he registered which were seven behind Locke for most in the NL. Volquez surrendered the most earned runs and threw the second most wild pitches in the Senior Circuit, too.
Will the 30-year-old be able to curtail his control issues and fine-tune his delivery under Searage's tutelage?
While improving on past weaknesses is a major aspect of how the rotation will ultimately be judged, steering clear of injuries will be integral as well.
Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez, two members who figure to be key parts of the upcoming staff, struggled with injuries throughout the season last year. Rodriguez is coming off a forearm injury, and Morton dealt with returning from Tommy John surgery and a foot injury.
Liriano and Gerrit Cole seemed locked into the top two spots, but the shuffling after that is still unclear. Morton performed well when healthy and could fill in behind Cole, but just how Rodriguez performs coming off his injury and how Volquez responds throughout spring training will play a large part in determining the final spots of the staff.
Jameson Taillon is a potential option several months into the season, a la Cole a season ago, which is something to look forward to should things go awry. In the near term, Stolmy Pimentel could serve as an alternative out of the bullpen.
Last year, the Pirates finalized their rotation with Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez and Locke, so clearly, a lot can and will change between now and the end of the season. The team has set itself up with several options for the rotation, but as always, things can always go wrong.
For one, Volquez could be this year's Liriano, or he could duplicate his performance from last year.