BRADENTON, Fla. -- Not long ago, the chances for Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson to make the majors this season looked promising, but now they have been downgraded to uncertain.
Locke and McPherson are the clubhouse leaders in the competition for the final spot in the starting rotation, a competition that will unfold over the course of spring training.
"An exciting competition, him being a good friend of mine and locker mates, right side by side each other," McPherson said. "We get to see each other day in and day out and go to battle against each other, but with each other in the same aspect. I'm looking forward to it."
At the end of 2012, McPherson and Locke had a shot to appear in the rotation at the same time. Kevin Correia left, the Pirates parted ways with Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton had several months remaining in his rehabilitation from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, leaving two rotation slots behind A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald. Then, the Pirates brought back Karstens and signed Francisco Liriano, seemingly edging out Locke and McPherson.
Liriano's broken right arm muddled the situation. He likely will miss the start of the season, re-igniting the race for the final spot.
McPherson, a 25-year-old right-hander, entered camp healthy after biceps tendinitis shortened his winter-ball stint in the Dominican Republic. He said he spent the winter traveling to Bradenton to receive treatment.
"This is a big year for me," he said. "I want to make sure that I had everything in order for this to proceed further basically. I didn't want any setbacks whatsoever."
McPherson missed the first two months of 2012 because of a strained lat muscle, but eventually made three starts in Class AAA Indianapolis. He made the majors in August and started three games in September. In his final start, Sept. 29 against the Cincinnati Reds, he struck out five and walked one in six scoreless innings.
"Having that opportunity, and to do well, was definitely something to build on," he said. "I took hold of it and I'm ready to get after it this year."
The left-handed Locke has more major league experience than McPherson, 51 innings over the past two seasons. He made six starts in 2012 and allowed 21 runs in 341/3 innings overall last season.
"Obviously it's an opportunity that everybody wishes they had," Locke, 25, said. "You wish it was already yours."
Locke also finished strong, allowing one run on two hits in six innings Oct. 1 against the Atlanta Braves. He had a problem with the home run last season, allowing six in eight appearance and two home runs in the same game twice.
Manager Clint Hurdle said the Pirates have "a number of candidates" available for the final rotation spot. Jonathan Sanchez, who recently joined the club on a minor league contract, has a chance to earn the job. Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, Andy Oliver and Jeanmar Gomez are other possibilities.
"There's always that fine line in spring training how much competition actually takes place," Hurdle said. "What's the quality of the hitters they're facing when they're out there, and things like that. You just try to be smart, you use your eyes, you watch them following the glove."
As the Pirates found out last season, when they lost Burnett, Karstens and Morton to injuries, the competition might soon become irrelevant. "If you worry about it too much it's going to slow you down," Locke said. "We got a bunch of guys around here if they need to fill a fifth spot, there's so much talent around here that they can do that with no problem."
Morton threw his fifth bullpen session Wednesday. He is limited to fastballs while on a mound but has started throwing breaking pitches off flat ground.
Inge is late addition
The Pirates signed Brandon Inge to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training.
Inge, 35, had a .658 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A's in 2012.
He spent most of his 12 major-league seasons with the Tigers, who selected him in the second round of the 1998 draft. He made the American League All-Star team in 2009, when he hit 27 home runs in 161 games.
In the past two seasons, though, he hit .208 with a .270 on-base percentage and a .606 OPS.
Primarily a third baseman, Inge has played all three outfield positions as well as catcher and second base in his career.
He is expected to report Friday to Bradenton.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published February 14, 2013 5:00 AM