PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' annual January mini-camp -- maybe more appropriately called a conditioning camp -- kicked off Monday morning in Bradenton, Fla. The list of participants can be found on one of my blog entries from last week for those who are curious. One thing to emphasize is that this four-day gathering is much more about making sure players are where they need to be in their offseason conditioning programs than it is getting pitchers on the mound and throwing. This is a shift in philosophy from previous years.
On a separate note, I am boarding a flight this afternoon for India, where I will be for much of the next two weeks. I'm thrilled to be able to turn off my cell phone and immerse myself in another culture before the frenzy of another baseball season begins. I've left behind a number of stories that will be posted over the next few weeks, so you'll still have a reason to check the website. And breaking news will be handled by other trusty MLB.com scribes. For now, another Inbox awaits.
Are the Pirates done pursuing free-agent pitchers? Can we expect any more help other than Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen? Neither of them seems to be a front-of-the-rotation guy. I certainly was hoping for more given the young talent in the field and the poor starting pitching performance last year. -- Jay P., Frankfort, Ind.
The Pirates will contend that even if they don't add any more starting pitchers this offseason, they will enter the 2011 season in better shape than they ended up last year. It's hard to argue that given how bad the 2010 results were for the starters. Correia has potential to help stabilize the rotation, and Olsen gives the Bucs more depth for the back end of the rotation.
The truth is, though, that the biggest effect on the rotation can come not from the new additions, but the returning starters. Guys like Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln are going to have to put poor 2010 seasons behind them and move closer to their potential. If improvements can be made from that group, the rotation can go somewhere. If they don't, it's going to be another long season.
Now certainly, adding another experienced and proven starter would increase the chances of the rotation making significant strides forward. But there just aren't many options left. The best free-agent pitcher left was Carl Pavano, who is returning to Minnesota.
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A more realistic signing would be Jeff Francis, who continues to look for a contract that includes a guaranteed roster spot. The Pirates, who would give Francis the opportunity to play under Clint Hurdle again, might offer that. Francis, who has had recent injury issues, is a another risky sign. But he would likely take a contract laced with incentives.
I didn't expect to get a top-tier player through free agency or even in a trade, but I did expect to see more than a platoon player and rehab pitchers. Is there any chance the Bucs are going to sign a good everyday Major Leaguer? -- Dan, Oil City, Pa.
As mentioned above, the Pirates are still looking for starting pitching help, so there could be an addition there. Otherwise, the club's most pressing area of need is in the bullpen. Expect Pittsburgh to sign at least one or two more experienced relievers before everyone descends on Bradenton, Fla., next month.
The Pirates would argue that they have signed some good everyday Major Leaguers already -- most notably Lyle Overbay and Correia. The group of players that the Bucs have acquired this offseason isn't dazzling, but the club is hopeful that it represents a noticeable improvement.
I realize that it was a limited sample last year, but I thought Steve Pearce performed well while he was healthy. How do you think the Pirates will handle him if he comes into Spring Training and outperforms Overbay? -- Adam D., Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Pearce did perform well when healthy last year, which made it that much more unfortunate when injuries derailed his season. But no matter what Pearce does this spring, he is not going to supplant Overbay as the team's starting first baseman. Overbay has sustained and proven Major League success -- something that Pearce does not. And Pittsburgh did not offer Overbay a $5 million contract to sit on the bench. Pittsburgh expects Overbay to play regularly, meaning that Pearce is competing for a role as a backup.
Also, I get a lot of questions pertaining to Spring Training competitions, and that leads me to another point of emphasis. Very few decisions are ever based on how someone fares in Spring Training, and most shouldn't be. Yes, it might help determine the last bench or bullpen spots, but it's risky to base evaluations on a span of a few weeks in which players are facing varying levels of competition. I can think of countless examples of players who shined in spring only to disappoint during the season. And there are just as many who have slow spring starts but turn it on once the season begins.
With Olsen being a lefty, does he have a greater chance to make the rotation to balance the righties and lefties? -- Wes B., St. Marys, Pa.
If you take the four perceived "locks" for the rotation -- Paul Maholm, Correia, Ohlendorf and James McDonald -- the Pirates have three right-handers and one left-hander in the bunch. Don't assume, though, that the unbalance means Pittsburgh will find a lefty to fill that fifth spot in the rotation.
While it is ideal to have pitchers with different looks and repertoires, the Pirates are going to fill that final rotation spot with whoever gives the club the best chance to win. If that's Olsen, the Bucs will get a second lefty. If it's Lincoln or Morton or another right-hander, so be it. If Pittsburgh goes with four right-handers, it won't be the first time.
If the Pirates had a young top-of-the-rotation starter, they would be instantly competitive. That said, trading Andrew McCutchen and their No. 1 Draft pick would quickly solve that problem until the onset of all that Minor League investment gets here. -- Jim P., Pittsburgh
Oh no, no, no. Not a good idea. The long-term payout of having McCutchen for at least five more years and adding a potential superstar with that Draft pick this summer is worth far more than the Pirates would get through such a trade. Not to mention, you can't trade picks before the Draft in baseball as you can in other sports.
I realize that acquiring top-tier starters in a trade is extremely difficult. But you shouldn't pull the trigger on a deal without considering the cost. The Pirates will continue to focus on drafting and developing starters in an effort to solve this problem of not having a true top-of-the-rotation guy.