At the end of this past season, the Pirates told Jeff Locke that there wasn't much left for him to accomplish in the minor leagues. It's time, they said, to be a major leaguer.
"It's something that I have to realize and I have to take control of that myself," Locke said. "Any time you enter a season like right now where you only have three starting pitchers, it's yours to lose."
Locke represents one of the Pirates' internal options to fill the remaining two spots in the starting rotation after A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald. The Pirates are exploring trades and free-agent starters, general manager Neal Huntington said Friday before the start of PirateFest at David L. Lawrence Convention Center, but, if they don't add anyone else, the final spots will go to inexperienced starters in their mid-20s who for the most part lack a major league track record.
Recent free-agent signings have underscored the market value of quality starters and the difficulty that value poses to the Pirates in pursuing it. Zack Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for six years and $147 million, and Anibal Sanchez reportedly agreed to terms with the Detroit Tigers for five years and $80 million. Even Jeremy Guthrie, who had a 4.76 ERA in 2012, got three years and $25 million from the Kansas City Royals.
The Pirates continue to hear from other teams regarding closer Joel Hanrahan. Recent news reports have mentioned the Dodgers' Chris Capuano and the Tigers' Rick Porcello as potential returns for the closer. For now, though, the Pirates will turn to Locke, Kyle McPherson and other internal options.
Locke, 25, a left-hander, has made 10 major league starts in the past two seasons and has a 5.82 ERA in 51 innings in the majors. He cited input from Burnett this past season as an important influence on his development.
"A.J. just taught me about confidence, trust in myself, trust that I'm good," Locke said. "Don't beat yourself up all the time. Always take the positives and move on."
McPherson, 25, appeared in 10 games but started only three as a rookie. In his final three games, all starts, he allowed six earned runs in 142/3 innings. He ended the season by pitching six scoreless innings Sept. 29 after consecutive 41/3-inning outings.
The Pirates told left-hander Justin Wilson, a former starter who was moved to the bullpen in 2011 and 2012, to come to spring training prepared to start.
"If it pans out that I get a spot in the five-man [rotation], then it's a great opportunity," Wilson, 25, said. "I really just want to make an impact on the team somehow, and I want to win games with these guys."
Wilson made his Pirates debut as a reliever this past season, allowing one earned run in 42/3 innings. He has struggled with control, walking 4.5 batters per nine innings in the minors.
"My stuff usually plays if I can throw it in the strike zone," Wilson said.
Next in line are newcomers Zach Stewart, Vin Mazzaro and Andrew Oliver, all acquired in trades in the past three weeks. They also will report to camp prepared to start. Stewart 26, had an 8.58 ERA in 352/3 innings in the majors in 2012, but a 3.94 mark in 11 starts in Class AAA.
Mazzaro, 26, has made 45 major league starts over four seasons, the most of any of the pitchers who are considered viable options. He appeared in 18 major league games this past season, but started only six of them. He had a 5.73 ERA in 44 innings in the majors and also appeared in 22 minor-league games. Oliver, 25, has not appeared in the majors since 2011. He walked 88 batters in 118 innings in Class AAA last season, the second year in a row in which he walked at least 80.
The Pirates can still add to the staff -- they traded for Burnett at the start of spring training. They had six pitchers for five rotation spots entering last season, which gave them depth that Huntington believes is important. For now, with Charlie Morton out until at least June rehabilitating from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, the young guys represent the team's options.
"Every year my goal has always been to be healthy, contribute, do the little things," Locke said. "This year, it's to make this club. I feel like with an opportunity to make the club out of camp, it can be done."
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter: @BrinkPG.