BRADENTON, Fla. _ The Pittsburgh Pirates have their first of three off days during the exhibition season Tuesday and have played 12 Grapefruit League games. Thus, it is a good early checkpoint to see how the battle for the four open spots in the starting rotation is shaping up.
Finding out who will fall in place in the rotation behind left-hander Paul Maholm, the nominal ace of the staff despite winning just nine games last season, is certainly the most intriguing aspect of the spring for the Pirates.
While the Pirates brass says the other rotation spots are unsettled, that is more motivational tactic than cold and hard fact. They are trying to light a fire under some pitchers after their 5.08 team ERA last season was the worst in the National League.
Left-hander Zach Duke and right-hander Ian Snell are going to be in the rotation, even if no official pronouncement has been made.
The expectations for Duke have been lessened as he is no longer looked at as a potential ace like when he went 8-2 as a rookie in 2005. However, he spent the winter building arm strength and getting in top condition, and seems poised for a solid year after going 5-14 last season.
Snell will be away from camp for at least one more week after Puerto Rico advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. Minnesota faced Snell in an exhibition game against Puerto Rico last week and manger Ron Gardenhire was raving about him the next day when the Twins played the Pirates in Bradenton.
While Duke and Snell can be written in ink, right-hander
Ross Ohlendorf‚Äôs name can be written in heavy pencil as part of the rotation. The Pirates felt Ohlendorf was the best of the three pitchers they acquired last July in the trade with the Yankees that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to New York.
Ohlendorf was gassed by the time he got to the Pirates for a five-start audition last September as he began making the transition from reliever back to starter at Class AAA with the Yankees in June. However, Ohlendorf is showing a live fastball and sharp slider this spring, giving the appearance of a guy who could eventually pitch near the front of a major-league rotation.
The fifth spot is wide open at this point.
Lefty Tom Gorzelanny continues to show the same inability to consistently throw strikes and finish off hitters that got him demoted to Class AAA Indianapolis last July. Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen, the two other righties acquired from the Yankees, have been erratic.
A pitcher to watch is right-hander Virgil Vasquez, a sinker/slider type who was claimed off waivers from San Diego in January. His spring debut was delayed by biceps tendinitis but he impressed manager John Russell during a two-inning relief stint last week and will make his first start Thursday when the Pirates play the Twins in Bradenton.
John Perrotto covers the Pirates for www.piratesreport.com and Baseball America and Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus