Most of Pirates' remaining moves will be among the pitchers

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- For a player who would still qualify as a rookie, Bryan Morris is somewhat of a spring-training veteran.

"The years before this year, I pretty much knew that I was here for experience, that I was going to the minor leagues," he said. "Well, this year, I have a chance to start in Pittsburgh. It's a big difference."

Added to the 40-man roster in 2009, Morris has been a spring-training attendee since 2010, when he had yet to crack a Class AA roster.

Morris was granted a fourth option year in 2013 because -- while his three option years had been used -- he had not established himself as a major league player by the time those three options had been used.

But the urgency to make the Pirates roster is still there, as it is for a handful of pitchers who are fighting for the one or two spots still open in the seven-man bullpen.

In less than two weeks, the Pirates will open the 2013 season with a home game against the Chicago Cubs. Before then, the team has nearly two-dozen roster moves to make.

Most of those moves will come at the expense of the 26 pitchers still a part of the team's major league spring-training roster. General manager Neal Huntington, who has had some success in revamping his bullpen each year, has some hard decisions to make with a handful of players competing for one or two spots as a reliever.

A few of those spots have been all but decided. Jason Grilli is the team's closer after an offseason trade that sent Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. Mark Melancon, who was acquired in that trade, figures to be a lock for a setup spot, as does Jared Hughes, who spent most of 2012 with the Pirates.

From there, things get a little blurry. At least one, and most likely two, left-handed pitchers will be added to the mix.

At the start of the spring, Tony Watson figured to be a lock for the roster after spending all of 2012 with the Pirates. But his outing Wednesday was his first in a Grapefruit League game since Feb. 28, taking time to work on his mechanics and address some discomfort. And when he has pitched, he has struggled and has a 23.36 ERA in spring training.

Justin Wilson, a left-handed pitcher who was a September call-up, has a good chance to make the cut, whether or not Watson is ready for opening day. Mike Zagurski, a non-roster invitee, is another left-handed pitcher who has performed well in spring training.

Right-hander Chris Leroux entered spring training on the outside looking into the bullpen puzzle. But the front office always has been bullish on Leroux's talent, and he is yet to give up a run this spring.

Things get even fuzzier from that point. Morris is among a handful of players fighting for what seems to be a couple of spots in the bullpen. And that's not including another group of pitchers in competition for the starting rotation -- any of whom could be considered for a long-relief role.

"Yes, we're competing against the opposition," said Grilli, who spent many spring trainings fighting for a final bullpen spot. "But there are men in here wearing the same colors, competing against each other. It's a great way that teammates can bond and keep pushing each other. For us, I think it's a good situation in that sense."

Hughes, who entered spring training in 2012 with a slim shot to crack the major league roster -- but emerged as one of the team's best relievers -- said the best advice he has heard is to all but ignore the roster math.

"They always say, 'You guys, don't play manager,' " Hughes said. "Take the mindset that there's room for everybody and just focus on yourself when you're on that mound."

Grilli echoed that advice.

"You've just got to sit there and almost box out the things you can't control and feel like you're going to be the last man standing," he said. "If you look around, you can defeat yourself.

Spring-training report

Game: Braves 18, Pirates 9.

Starter: Kyle McPherson -- 42/3 innings pitched, 10 hits, 8 runs, 7 earned runs, 3 strikeouts, 2 home runs, 1 hit batter.

Top batter: Andrew McCutchen -- 2 for 4, 2 RBIs, 1 run, 1 home run.

Of note: The Pirates and Braves combined for 37 hits and five errors at Champions Stadium.

News of the day: Considered by some the favorite to claim the still-vacant fifth spot in the starting rotation, McPherson struggled in his fifth start of the spring, raising his ERA to 8.31. McPherson surrendered hits to six of the first seven batters as the Braves scored five runs in the first. Things got better -- but not by much -- in the second, when Freddie Freeman hit the first of his two, two-run homers in the game. "It is late," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And we're trying to make decisions." With less than two weeks to opening day, no pitcher has really separated himself from a pack of players fighting for that final spot. Hurdle said the Pirates pay close attention to these later starts because they are against better lineups and players should have worked through all their warts. "We've got to find ways to get outs and to execute with more consistency, especially as we're closing in on things," he said. McPherson struggled with his command, leaving many pitches up in the strike zone.

Buried treasure: The Pirates released six minor league players, including pitcher Mike Colla, 26, who had a career 3.75 ERA but has never advanced past Class AA. The team also released Alexi Lukashevich, Porfirio Lopez, Philippe Valiquette, Martires Cadet and Wilson Lee. Additionally, the Pirates plan to convert minor league infielder Jared Lakind to a pitcher.

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Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1722 and Twitter: @msanserino. First Published March 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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