When the Pirates' minicamp for pitchers convenes Wednesday in Bradenton, Fla., it will mark the semi-official opening of what could be a spirited competition for spots on the 12-man staff: As many as eight will battle to be in the five-man rotation, and more than a dozen will battle for the seven-man bullpen. Only Paul Maholm is a lock for the rotation, and only Matt Capps and John Grabow are locks for the bullpen.
As general manager Neal Huntington put it this week, "We'll have about 25 pitchers in camp with a legitimate shot at making our team."
Some of that competition will be based on past performance, some on Grapefruit League games, and some, as always is the case but seldom gets discussed above a whisper, will have an edge because of contractual matters ...
1. Start with the big money, or at least as big as it gets with the Pirates.
Ian Snell has the lone long-term contract among the pitchers, carrying through 2012 and paying a staff-high $3 million next season. Thus, even after a lackluster 2008, he can be expected to get the benefit of the doubt with an aim of protecting the investment.
Similarly, Zach Duke, like Maholm, is first-time eligible for arbitration, meaning his salary could increase four or five times from his $400,000 of last season. In the bullpen, Tyler Yates also is eligible and will get a raise on $800,000.
2. Options are another variable.
Phil Dumatrait, Sean Burnett, Craig Hansen and Yates are the only pitchers on the 40-man roster who are out of options, meaning they must make the team -- the 25-man roster -- out of spring training or the Pirates risk losing them on waivers if they try to send them to the minors. In Burnett's case, if he does not make the team, he would become a free agent.
3. There are escape clauses.
Those give a player the right to declare free agency in the final week of spring training, thus pressuring the team to keep him or cut him loose to hook up elsewhere. No such contracts have been signed yet -- Denny Bautista has an escape clause, but it does not kick in until June 1 -- but one or two typically pop up.
4. Finally, there is Rule 5.
As happened with Evan Meek last spring, Donnie Veal, the Pirates' Rule 5 draft pick last month, will force management to decide whether his potential is cause enough not only to add him to the 25-man roster but also to keep him on it all season to retain his rights. If not, he must be offered back to the Chicago Cubs for $25,000.
Expect all of the above to play a large role.
• Manager John Russell and his staff will meet tomorrow and Tuesday in Bradenton in advance of the four-day minicamp.
• The Pirates will invite fewer players to spring training, Huntington said, expressing regret about the 65 in camp last year, especially the 38 pitchers. "It was too many, and that's my fault," he said. "There weren't enough innings, enough time to do what we wanted." The current number of pitchers is 27, and it might end up at just 30. The current overall number is 51.
• Keep an eye on Brian Slocum, one of those non-roster pitchers. He is a 27-year-old right-handed starter with a 4.12 career ERA in the minors and 10 major league appearances, but the Pirates are speaking about him as if he can make a real impact on their depth.
• With all the talk about needing a right-handed power bat for the outfield, what about the Pirates' top prospect? Huntington replied: "Andrew McCutchen won't make our team because he's our best option. He'll make our team when he shows he's ready to be a big leaguer. We want him in a position where he can be successful." Bet on some point in 2009.
• Couple of promotional notes for the coming season: A Ryan Doumit bobblehead was added for April 18, Nate McLouth's All-Star model is May 16, and a bobblehead to be chosen by fan vote is Sept. 25. Also, SkyBlast will be spread out for the first time, one each in May, August and September. Bands include Foreigner and KC and the Sunshine Band.
• Still no offer from the Pirates to Doug Mientkiewicz.
• Only 33 days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.