Pirates' fifth starter spot still up for grabs

Bucs using final two weeks to examine four candidates

Pirates' fifth starter spot still up for grabs

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Who will round out the Pirates' rotation? Whoever can "put a foot down and grab it" over the next two weeks, pitching coach Ray Searage said.

The Pirates' decision will not be based solely on Spring Training performance, but they have seen ups and downs from all four of Drew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams. In the end, how will the Bucs make their choice?

"We want to honor the body of work and not make a decision based on 12 innings here in Spring Training, good or bad," general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday morning. "Ultimately, you're looking for growth from the younger pitchers. Are they ready to take that next step? Seeing signs of encouragement and also signs that we've still got some work to do."

The Pirates have already announced where Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova fit in their rotation. Cole will pitch against the Red Sox on Opening Day at Fenway Park. Taillon will pitch the second game of the season, Nova will start the home opener.

Hurdle talks about Kuhl

What about the other two spots? Right-hander Chad Kuhl made a solid debut last year, and he's pitched well this spring. It's not yet official, but there is little doubt Kuhl will be in the rotation.

"Kuhl has been on the inside track, and I've acknowledged that from [the start of] camp. He's continued to throw the ball well," Huntington said. "It's easy to acknowledge that he continues to be on the inside track."

That leaves one spot for Hutchison, Glasnow, Brault or Williams. Hutchison pitched well until his last outing. Glasnow rebounded with what he called an "a-ha moment" on Saturday. Brault, the only lefty in the mix, has been good aside from one tough inning against the Phillies. Huntington spoke highly of Williams' most recent performance in a "B" game against most of the Orioles' "A" lineup.

The Pirates would like to get two more looks at each pitcher before breaking camp and heading north. That's more of a challenge now, with relievers in need of consistent work and starters stretched out to throw at least five innings.

"There are good signs, and there are challenges with each one of those guys," Huntington said. "Some things are clarifying, and we're excited about the depth and the quality of arms we have in camp."

The Pirates could start the season without a full, five-man rotation. Given their abundance of off-days, they could keep their top four on regular rest and only need a fifth starter three times in April. Huntington said the front office has discussed that possibility, but it may not be in their best long-term interest.

"Part of it will be based on who ultimately we decide is going to be the last starter in the rotation, how much of a stranglehold do they have on that spot and then matchups from there on out," Huntington said. "It is something we've talked about. … We're still working through exactly who's going to be there and how we structure it."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.