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Pirates have holes to fill after magical 2013 season

The SportsXchange

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's back to reality for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates officially put their magical 2013 season behind them Thursday when pitchers and catchers went through the first official workout of spring training at Bradenton, Fla. The Pirates won 94 games last year when they had both a winning season and qualified for the postseason for the first time since 1992.

However, after a less-than-inspiring offseason, the Pirates roster is clearly not as strong as it was last October, when Pittsburgh beat the Cincinnati Reds in the National League wild-card game then pushed the eventual National League champion St. Louis Cardinals to the five-game limit before losing in the National League Division Series.

The Pirates lost right-hander A.J. Burnett, first baseman Justin Morneau and right fielder Marlon Byrd to free agency. They decided not to tender first baseman Garrett Jones a contract, allowing him to become a free agent.

Thus, the Pirates will spend the spring trying to fill three significant holes.

The biggest need is a left-handed hitting first baseman to be a platoon partner with right-handed hitting Gaby Sanchez. While the Pirates profess that they believe Sanchez can handle being an everyday player, he has a subpar .700 OPS in 1,415 career plate appearances against right-handed pitchers.

General manager Neal Huntington was unsuccessful in his attempts to acquire a first baseman in the offseason, but the Pirates have been linked in recent reports to free agent Kendrys Morales. The switch-hitter batted .277 with 23 home runs in 156 games last season for the Seattle Mariners.

Barring a Morales signing, the Pirates plan to give left-handed-hitting rookie Andrew Lambo a long look during the early portion of the exhibition season. Lambo, 25, hit a combined 33 home runs between Double-A Altoona, Triple-A Indianapolis and the Pirates last year.

Left-handed hitting Travis Snider and right-handed hitting Jose Tabata platooned in right field last season before the Pirates acquired Byrd on Aug. 27 from the New York Mets in a trade. Both will get a chance to win the job outright this spring.

Snider hit just .215 with five home runs in 111 games last season, but is healthy again after undergoing foot surgery in October. Tabata had a .282 batting average with six homers in 106 games.

The Pirates are hopeful left-hander Francisco Liriano can step into the No. 1 starter's role left open with the departure of Burnett. Liriano was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year last season after going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts.

The Pirates are also hopeful right-hander Edinson Volquez, their biggest offseason acquisition, can follow in Liriano's footsteps and turn his career around. The 30-year-old Volquez went 9-12 in a combined 33 games with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers last season and his 5.71 earned run average was the worst among all major league pitchers who qualified for the ERA title.

The Pirates are gambling $5 million on a one-year contract that pitching coach Ray Searage can fix Volquez, who has gone 33-35 with a 4.94 ERA over the last five seasons since going 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA for the Reds in 2008.

NOTES, QUOTES

--CF Andrew McCutchen isn't resting after winning the National League Most Valuable Player award last season. Though position players are not scheduled to report to spring training until Feb. 18 at Bradenton, Fla., McCutchen showed up Feb. 13 for the first workout for pitchers and catchers. McCutchen lives 90 minutes away from Bradenton in Fort Meade, Fla.

--LHP Wandy Rodriguez reported to spring training saying he felt healthy after missing the last four months of last season because of left elbow stiffness. The Pirates are counting on a full season from Rodriguez after losing RHP A.J. Burnett to the Philadelphia Phillies in free agency. Rodriguez was 6-4 with a 3.59 ERA in 12 starts in 2013.

--RHP Kyle McPherson is a non-roster invitee in the Pirates' spring training camp and won't be able to pitch in exhibition games as he rehabs from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery that was performed last July. That is quite a comedown from last year when McPherson entered camp as the favorite to win the fifth starter's job but lost out to LHP Jeff Locke then started just twice for Triple-A Indianapolis before being shut down for the season.

--SS Jordy Mercer goes into spring training expected to be the regular at shortstop after hitting .285 with eight home runs in 103 games last season. The biggest question about Mercer is his defense, which is why INF Clint Barmes started four of the five games in the Pirates' loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series. Barmes was re-signed as a free agent on a one-year, $2 million deal to provide insurance at shortstop and continue mentoring Mercer.

--RHP Gerrit Cole was upset when he was assigned to Triple-A Indianapolis last year during spring training. However, Cole won't have to worry about being sent down this spring after going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts as a rookie for the Pirates last season. Though the Pirates won't say so publicly because they don't want to add any pressure on the 23-year-old, they privately feel Cole can wind up replacing Burnett as the No. 1 starter.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was Bucapalooza all winter but now it's the closing of the book and time to write a new one." -- Manager Clint Hurdle, on opening spring training following a season in which the Pirates both had a winning season and made the postseason for the first time since 1992.

ROSTER REPORT

PROJECTED ROTATION:

LHP Francisco Liriano

RHP Gerrit Cole

LHP Wandy Rodriguez

RHP Charlie Morton

RHP Edinson Volquez

Liriano is being counted on to replace RHP A.J. Burnett, who left as a free agent, as the ace of the staff after going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA last season, but he has never put together good back-to-back seasons during his eight-year career. The hard-throwing Cole went 6-2 with a 2.28 ERA in his last 11 starts last season as a rookie and the sky appears to be the limit for the 23-year-old.

Rodriguez is being counted on to pitch in the middle of the rotation despite being limited to 12 starts last season and missing the final four months because of elbow stiffness. Morton fits in well with the Pirates' philosophy of extensive defensive shifting with their infielders as he led the major leagues with a 62.9 percent ground-ball rate last season. Volquez was signed to a one-year, $5 million contract as a free agent more because of the 4.18 ERA he posted in his last six starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season than the 6.01 mark he had in 27 games with the San Diego Padres.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:

RHP Jason Grilli (closer)

RHP Mark Melancon

LHP Tony Watson

LHP Justin Wilson

RHP Vin Mazzaro

RHP Bryan Morris

RHP Stolmy Pimentel

Grilli had 37 saves last year in his first season as a closer, but there is at least some cause for concern as he is 37 and had late-season forearm problems. Melancon is the closer in waiting following a season in which he had 16 saves, 20 holds, a miniscule 1.39 ERA and a spectacular 70-8 strikeout/walk ratio.

Watson quietly was one of the best lefties in the major leagues last season with 22 holds, a 2.39 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP. Wilson's fastball averaged 95.3 mph last season but he needs to cut down on the walks if he is to become a truly dominant reliever. Mazzaro was a very effective middle and long man last season, posting a 2.81 ERA in 72 2/3 innings.

Morris and Pimentel are both hard throwers who are out of minor-league options, which greatly increases their chances of making the Opening Day roster.

PROJECTED LINEUP:

LF Starling Marte

SS Jordy Mercer

CF Andrew McCutchen

3B Pedro Alvarez

2B Neil Walker

C Russell Martin

1B Gaby Sanchez

RF Jose Tabata

Marte suffered a finger injury last Aug. 19 that limited him to just 27 at-bats for the remainder of his first full major-league season but he still wound up hitting .280 with 12 home runs, 35 RBIs, 41 stolen bases, a .343 on-base percentage and a .441 slugging percentage. Mercer hit .285 in 333 at-bats last season and had a .410 batting average in 78 at-bats against left-handers but his defense is erratic and the Pirates re-signed veteran SS Clint Barmes as insurance.

McCutchen could well win the National League MVP for a second consecutive season as he is just 27 and coming off a year in which he hit 21 home runs, stole 27 bases, scored 97 runs and posted a .911 OPS. Alvarez led the NL with 36 homers last season and drove in 100 runs but his lack of consistent contact remains a concern after he had an NL-high 186 strikeouts. Walker has become a switch-hitter in name only as all 16 of his home runs last season came batting left-handed.

Martin hit just .138 in his last 109 at-bats last season as his batting average fell from .255 on Aug. 15 to .229 but the Pirates believe they will be able to keep him fresher with more days off this year after acquiring backup C Chris Stewart from the New York Yankees in the offseason. The right-handed hitting Sanchez raked left-handed pitchers to the tune of a .897 OPS in 102 at-bats last season but had a .619 OPS in 162 at-bats against right-handers. Tabata hasn't turned into the player the Pirates have hoped and will need to hold off a challenge to his starting job from Travis Snider, but he did hit .300 in his last .263 at-bats in 2013.

TOP ROOKIES: Barring a trade or free-agent signing, left-handed hitting OF/1B Andrew Lambo will get a chance to earn a platoon at first base with right-handed hitting Gaby Sanchez after hitting .280 with 32 home runs and 99 RBIs in a combined 120 games with Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona. Though he has been a starting pitcher throughout his career, RHP Stolmy Pimentel impressed with a fastball that averaged 94.7 mph during five September relief appearances last season and will likely make the team as the long reliever.

MEDICAL WATCH:

--LHP Wandy Rodriguez (arthritic left elbow) reported to spring training with no restrictions after not pitching after June 5 last season.

--OF Travis Snider (left foot surgery in October 2013) had bone spurs and the sesamoid bone removed. He is fully recovered for the start of spring training.

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