PITTSBURGH -- Welcome to the first Inbox of 2012. Sadly, I must also announce that it is one of my last as your Pirates beat writer for MLB.com. In case you missed the announcement, I put out on my blog and on Twitter just before the holidays that I will soon be transitioning into a new role with MLB.com. I am headed back to Missouri, where I will take over as the Cardinals beat writer.
As I expressed in my blog entry, I cannot thank you all enough for your interest in the content of this site and correspondence with me during my nearly five years on the beat. I feel blessed to have gotten to spend time living in Pittsburgh, a city that has become home to me.
To those of you who have submitted Inbox questions, thank you for your participation. If I get enough additional questions this week (about the team, not me, of course), I will put out one final Inbox together for next week before I sign off for good.
Now onto this week's batch of questions ...
If the Pirates decide to have five outfielders, who will get the fifth spot along with Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley and Nate McLouth? Will Starling Marte or Gorkys Hernandez get a look?
-- Luke E., Chest Springs, Pa.
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Marte is definitely not going to begin the year as an extra outfielder for the Pirates. For one, he is a talented enough prospect that the organization wants nothing to do with bringing him up to the Majors to sit on the bench. And secondly, he is also not ready. After playing in Double-A in 2011, Marte is expected to begin the year in Triple-A. While he's there, the Pirates would particularly like to see Marte's plate discipline improve.
Though Hernandez played in Triple-A last year, I also don't see him being ready to crack the Pirates' Opening Day roster. He, too, could benefit from some more time in the Minors.
Depending on how things shake out, Garrett Jones could technically serve as the Pirates' fifth outfielder, even if he is set to get regular playing time at first base. By including him among the count of outfielders, the Pirates would have room to, for instance, add an additional infielder.
I thought that the acquisition of a starter was one of the primary offseason goals for the Bucs. Not only has that not happened, but I never even hear any kind of rumor that they are searching. Is the front office stating that our current rotation is one that can lead us to the playoffs?
-- Steve D., Tucson, Ariz.
Well, it is certainly inaccurate to say that nothing has happened in regards to adding to the rotation this offseason. Perhaps you missed it, but the Pirates signed lefty starter Erik Bedard to a one-year deal during the December Winter Meetings. Bedard will be plugged into that rotation, effectively becoming the left-handed starter that the Pirates lost when Paul Maholm became a free agent.
That leaves the Pirates with a rotation of Bedard, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia. The Pirates are content going into the year that starting five, though the club is not closed off to adding another starter if the right fit is available at the right price between now and the start of the season.
Remember, too, that Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke or Jo-Jo Reyes could push themselves into a discussion for a rotation spot with a strong spring or impressive start to the season in Triple-A.
Now that we signed a shortstop that will be here for two years, are we going to get his heir apparent ready in our Minor League system?
-- David P., Spring Lake, N.C.
Ideally, the Pirates will have someone from within the system ready to take over as the team's starting shortstop in 2014. That would be after Clint Barmes holds down the position for two years. Chase d'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer would certainly be two candidates who could emerge ready for that job. Behind those two is Brock Holt, who could push his way into consideration with a strong couple of years in the Minors.
The Pirates knew that no one within the organization was ready to take over as a starting shortstop in 2012, which forced the club to have to look elsewhere for help. And while signing Barmes to a two-year deal might block someone like d'Arnaud or Mercer from becoming a starter in 2013, that multiyear deal was part of what it took to get Barmes to agree to sign. Sometimes that can be the cost of having no choice but to fill holes via free agency.
What is the status of Michael McKenry? Is the plan to let him grow behind Rod Barajas as the future everyday starting backstop?
-- Seth P., Columbus, Ohio
In case you haven't read it, I wrote a story specifically on McKenry last week that touched on his work this offseason and his future with the organization. But to briefly sum up McKenry's status, he will come into Spring Training as the favorite to be Barajas' backup. That became even clearer with the Pirates' decision to part ways with Jason Jaramillo.
Even as a backup, McKenry should get plenty of opportunity to play. The Pirates are anticipating about 100-110 starts out of Barajas, and that would leave McKenry with a larger-than-usual load for a second catcher. The Pirates remain hopeful that Tony Sanchez is the starting catcher of the future, though McKenry has positioned himself to be a solid backup option for many years. His lack of production on the offensive end will probably preclude him from pushing his way into a starting role in the Majors.
With the recent additions of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, as well as other high-ceiling pitchers in later rounds of the Draft, will the Pirates now move to picking top-tier hitters in the Draft?
-- John W., Charleston, S.C.
The Pirates' philosophy remains unchanged, which is to say they are going to draft the most talented player available when it is their turn to select. This is a hard and firm stance, one that won't waver based on whom the Pirates took in recent Drafts and won't be contingent upon what areas of need there might be in the Minor League system.
Pittsburgh owns the eighth overall pick of the 2012 Draft and will not hesitate to use that pick to take another pitcher if the organization believes that pitcher is a better talent than any hitters still left on the board. You can never have a Minor League system with too much pitching depth, as this organization can certainly attest to.
I know top Draft picks rarely make it to the show within their first few years, but what are the Pirates' plans for Josh Bell?
-- Jared C., Rimersburg, Pa.
When projecting Bell's path to the Majors, there are two important factors to keep in mind. One, he was drafted out of high school, so he is not as polished a player as many who enter the Draft after three years of college baseball experience. And two, because his negotiations lasted until the mid-August deadline last summer, Bell did not get to play in the Minors last season.
Though he did participate in the organization's Fall Instructional League, Bell will likely begin the year in Low-A West Virginia. This would be a good place for him to get introduced to professional pitchers, many of whom will be several years older than him.
If you're looking specifically at the Pirates' 2011 Draft class, No. 1 pick Cole should shoot up the system much quicker than Bell because he is coming out of college.