BRADENTON, Fla. -- Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris were scheduled to relieve Francisco Liriano Thursday in a game against the Baltimore Orioles at McKechnie Field. More than another mundane relief outing in the final weeks of spring training, the appearances represented the main battle for the Pirates bullpen as well as the off-field circumstances that might affect it.
A report in the New York Post Wednesday said the Pirates could be open to trading Morris or long reliever Jeanmar Gomez. That was news to Gomez, who said he doesn't pay attention to media reports.
"I'm not going to try to think about it," Gomez said. "[I'll focus on] my workout and work hard, work in the bullpen."
Morris said the rumors had crossed his radar, but he doesn't pay it any mind.
"We got a lot of guys fighting for spots, so of course it's going to come up," Morris said. "You can't let that change what you're doing here."
Morris and Gomez lack minor league options, meaning the Pirates can't send them to the minor leagues without exposing them to waivers. Mazzaro, 27, and Stolmy Pimentel, 24, also are out of options. All four are right-handed.
The late-inning relievers, closer Jason Grilli and setup man Mark Melancon, return this season, as do Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, two left-handers. Gomez and Pimentel will start the season in the bullpen, leaving one spot remaining for Morris or Mazzaro as well as the possibility that the Pirates trade one.
"I don't think about the spot or what I will do, starter or reliever," Gomez said. "I just try to work hard and try to get all my pitches down in the zone and work it in the strike zone. Be aggressive with the hitter. Don't think too much about it."
Mazzaro will make $950,000 this year after avoiding arbitration in his first year eligible. Gomez and Morris don't have enough service time to reach arbitration eligibility and will make something close to the $500,000 major league minimum.
This surplus is not new.
"We feel like we've got some arms that if we got the right return and we didn't expose ourselves to weaknesses in other situations, that we could do some things with some of our pitching," general manager Neal Huntington said in the first day of the Winter Meetings in December.
At the time, the Pirates were looking for first basemen. They now could be in the market for a backup catcher after Chris Stewart had knee surgery Wednesday that will keep him out until mid-April at the earliest.
Gomez and Pimentel each can serve long relievers. Gomez said he pitched five innings in a minor league game Wednesday and he started eight games in 2013. Pimentel pitched more than one inning in four of his five appearances in 2013, his debut season.
Morris, 26, has been traded before, from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Pirates in 2008 in a three-team deal that sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles. His fastball hits the mid-90s and his slider is hard enough that it almost acts like a cutter. The pure stuff, though, translated only to a 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 55 appearances in 2013.
This spring, Morris is working on a two-seam fastball that will sink down and in against right-handed batters. He and the coaching staff started talking about it last season and he spent the offseason honing it.
"It feels good," he said. "I had a couple rough outings early in spring with it. That's just getting in and facing competition with a new pitch. The new release point's a little different with that pitch than with other pitches, so it's just a little timing thing that took me a couple outings to get down."
Morris had allowed five hits and three runs in 61/3 innings this spring entering Thursday. Mazzaro had allowed two runs in seven innings.
Gomez, 26, has been traded before, too, to the Pirates from the Cleveland Indians. He had a 3.35 ERA in 802/3 innings in 2013. He became tougher to hit, allowing fewer than a hit per inning for the first time in his major league career.
Gomez also throws a two-seam fastball and said keeping it low in the zone occupied some of his focus this spring.
"When you have conviction, you can throw hard and you know it's going to be moving," Gomez said.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG.