BRADENTON, Fla. -- Life is good for Pittsburgh Pirates starter Charlie Morton.
The right-hander finished last season strong and helped the Pittsburgh Pirates reach the postseason for the first time since 1992 after recovering from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. He then signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension in December that bought out his final year of arbitration eligibility and his first two years of free agency.
However, the right-hander is not satisfied. The 30-year-old is looking for even bigger things in 2014.
"I want to have a better season than I did last year," Morton said. "I feel you should always be looking to improve in this game or in anything you do."
Morton pitched as well as at any time in his six-year career last season, going 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts after missing the first 10 weeks while rehabbing from his surgery.
However, the one downside to Morton's 2013 season was that left-handers hitters batted .312 with an .844 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him. Conversely, right-handers hit just .223 with a .552 OPS.
In an effort to combat lefties, Morton is working on a hybrid split-finger/changeup this spring. The pitch has been effective thus far and so has his signature biting sinker, as Morton has not allowed a run in five innings in his first two Grapefruit League starts.
"When he's on, his stuff is as nasty as anybody in the league," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "Now that he's adding a pitch to get out lefties, he's going to be even better."
--1B Gaby Sanchez returned to the lineup Wednesday after sitting out four days with a strained right knee. Sanchez will, at the very least, be the right-handed hitting half of a first-base platoon. He could wind up being the everyday first baseman if the Pirates fail to trade for a first baseman this spring or rookie left-handed hitters OF/1B Andrew Lambo and 1B Chris McGuiness do not show that they merit playing time.
--LHP Jeff Locke has not yet been penciled back into the Pirates' spring rotation after being scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday because of tightness in his right side. Locke said he is feeling no pain and the Pirates' medical staff wanted to be cautious and not put him in position where he could be injured further. Despite being selected to the All-Star Game last season, Locke is unlikely to beat out RHP Edinson Volquez for the No. 5 starter. Locke still has minor league options remaining and went 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star break.
--RHP Edinson Volquez struggled in his first two outings of the Grapefruit League season. In three innings, he has allowed three runs and two hits while walking three and striking out one. Volquez admits that he has been overthrowing in an attempt to show the Pirates they made a wise decision by signing him to a one-year, $5 million contract as a free agent even though he allowed a National League-worst 108 earned runs last season.
--OF Jaff Decker has only an outside shot to beat out OF Jose Tabata and OF Travis Snider for the starting right fielder's job. However, he could end up winning a bench spot if he continues to impress the way he has during the early stages of Grapefruit League play. The rookie has done a little bit of everything, including executing a successful suicide squeeze and throwing a runner out at home plate. The Pirates acquired Decker from the San Diego Padres in a November trade.
--OF Austin Meadows, the first of the Pirates' two first-round picks in last year's amateur draft, has been sidelined by a strained right hamstring that he injured in a base-running drill. Meadows is expected to begin the season at low-Class A West Virginia and is ranked as the Pirates' No. 4 prospect by Baseball America. The 18-year-old hit a combined .316 with seven home runs in 48 games with the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates and short season Jamestown last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm just happy to be healthy. I know when I'm healthy that I'm a much more productive player than I was last year," -- Pittsburgh OF Travis Snider, who hit .215 with five home runs in 111 games in 2013 while being hampered by a foot injury that was surgically repaired after the season.
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.
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.
1. LF Starling Marte
2. SS Jordy Mercer
3. CF Andrew McCutchen
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez
5. 2B Neil Walker
6. C Russell Martin
7. 1B Gaby Sanchez
8. 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.
--LHP Jeff Locke (tightness in right side) was scratched from his scheduled start against Toronto on March 5 and there is no timetable for when he will return to game action.
--1B Travis Ishikawa (strained right calf) was injured Feb. 25 during the first inning of the Black-Gold intrasquad game and removed from the game. He is considered day-to-day.
--RHP Kyle McPherson (Tommy John surgery in July 2013) has started throwing off a mound in his recovery and expected to be able to pitch in minor league rehab games by June.
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