Pirates front office shakes up rotation

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- After two quiet days at the winter meetings, the Pirates revved the engine Wednesday, extending the contract of one of their own players and offering some insight into their plans for the pitching rotation.

First came a three-year contract for starter Charlie Morton worth $21 million guaranteed with a club option for 2017. Later Wednesday, according to a source, the Pirates agreed to terms with starter Edinson Volquez on a one-year, $5 million contract.

The move crowded the starting rotation and shed some light on the club's perception of its chances to re-sign A.J. Burnett, who has not decided whether he will return to the Pirates or retire.

Fox Sports first reported the agreement with Volquez.

Morton, the second-longest tenured Pirate after superstar centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, said his desire to remain in Pittsburgh played a large role in signing the contract.

"I've been here when things have been really, really bad and I've been here when things have been the best they've been in a long time," Morton said in a phone interview.

Morton will make $4 million in 2014 and $8 million in 2015 and 2016, according to sources familiar with the contract. The contract includes a $9.5 million team option for 2017 that could increase to $10 million through performance incentives and a $1 million buyout.

The option becomes a mutual option if Morton is traded. If Morton declines his side of the mutual option after being traded, he forfeits the buyout. The $500,000 available in performance bonuses in Morton's option is based on games started: $125,000 each for 15, 20, 25 and 30 starts.

"As you continue to look for ways to maintain sustainability, you look to your pitching staff first for stability," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Charlie took big steps forward in many areas this year and, to have him now as one of the staples moving forward, I think, is good for all of us."

The deal buys out at least the first two years of Morton's free agency. He was eligible for arbitration for the final time this offseason and would have become a free agent after the 2014 season. Including Volquez, whose contract will not be finalized until he passes his physical, the Pirates have $51.75 million committed to nine players in 2014.

Morton and the Pirates began negotiating in early November, and both sides credited the work of Pirates vice president and general counsel Bryan Stroh. Morton passed a physical Wednesday in Pittsburgh and the deal became official.

"From the get-go, it was just about being with the Pirates," Morton said.

Morton, 30, had a 3.26 ERA in 116 innings in 2013 after returning in June from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.

The Atlanta Braves originally drafted Morton in 2002, and his debut was with them in 2008. The Pirates acquired Morton in 2009, along with Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez, when they traded Nate McLouth to Atlanta.

Morton struggled in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, he revamped his delivery to lower his arm slot and create more movement on his two-seam fastball. The change helped him to a 3.83 ERA in 1712/3 innings.

After 2011, Morton had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. He made only nine starts in 2012 before needing elbow reconstruction surgery in June.

"Unfortunately, the last three or four years, he's battled the hip, he's battled the elbow, which gives cause for concern," general manager Neal Huntington said. "At the same time, he works so hard, he cares so much, he's going to take care of himself."

By spending $5 million on Volquez, the Pirates likely have indicated they are preparing for life without Burnett, despite Huntington and Hurdle saying the dialogue with Burnett is continuing. Volquez would join the rotation along with Morton, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Wandy Rodriguez, with Locke also a candidate. Signing Burnett would mean forcing someone from the rotation, an unlikely proposition given the starters' skills and contracts.

How effective Volquez, 30, will be is another issue. He had a 5.71 ERA with the San Diego Padres and their pitcher-friendly Petco Park last season before they released him in August. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Volquez for the season's final month and. in that brief span, his walk rate decreased, but his ERA remained high.

Volquez led the National League in earned runs allowed in 2013 and walks issued in 2012. He has not walked fewer than four batters per nine innings in any of his nine major league seasons. His best season came in 2008 with the Cincinnati Reds when he posted a 3.21 ERA and struck out 206 batters in 196 innings. In the next five seasons combined, he had a 4.94 ERA.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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