Ron Cook: At last, news is good for Pirates

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The Pirates -- a team in desperate need of good news with opening day Monday -- received a double dose Wednesday. First, reports broke that the club had agreed to a long-term contract with outfielder Starling Marte that could keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season at a franchise-friendly price. That's big. Then, Francisco Liriano threw 55 pitches in a simulated game and reported no pain in his groin, which had been sore. That's bigger, at least short term. Liriano appears ready for his start in the opener against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.

Wednesday's news certainly beat the heck out of Tuesday's. That was the day the Pirates sent presumptive platoon first baseman Andrew Lambo to the minor leagues. It's hard to lose a job in spring training because the results carry so little weight. But Lambo found a way. He was so awful the team had to send him down, leaving Gaby Sanchez and Travis Ishikawa as its first basemen.

Wednesday's news also trumped the offseason news, all of which seemed bad. Marlon Byrd left. So did Justin Morneau and A.J. Burnett. It's easy to justify each decision the Pirates made with those players. Byrd and Burnett received two-year deals at big money. They aren't worth it, especially at their age, Byrd, 36, and Burnett, 37. Morneau was incredibly unproductive after joining the Pirates in August. Despite hitting behind Andrew McCutchen and in front of Byrd and Pedro Alvarez, he didn't hit a home run and had just three RBIs in 116 at-bats in 31 games, including the playoffs. You want that guy hitting cleanup for your team again?

But the Pirates have done nothing to replace Byrd and Morneau and little to replace Burnett. Before the Marte contract, they had spent hardly any money after promising to increase payroll as the team became successful and crowds grew at PNC Park. The Associated Press reported Wednesday -- before the Marte news -- that the Pirates' 2014 projected payroll of $78.1 million ranks 27th in the majors. That's not exactly meeting a promise, is it?

Barring a trade, the Pirates will go into the season as a much lesser team than the one that lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series in the fall. They were counting on Lambo. He failed. Without Byrd, they're going with Travis Snider and Jose Tabata in right field. They defied logic by spending $5 million to bring in Edinson Volquez to take Burnett's spot in the rotation even though Volquez has been horrid for five consecutive seasons after pitching well in 2008. It doesn't exactly build confidence that he has had a rotten spring.

That's why it was easy to expect the worst with Liriano Wednesday. Would it have surprised you if the Pirates had shut him down after 10 pitches and put him on the disabled list? A groin injury is tricky, especially for a pitcher who needs his legs to be effective. Management won't completely celebrate until Liriano wakes up this morning and says he feels no tightness. He said he will be good to go Monday.

If Liriano is healthy, the Pirates rotation has a chance to be strong. Gerrit Cole should make big strides after his success as a rookie. Charlie Morton has had a promising spring. Wandy Rodriguez has been healthy after missing most of last season with arm problems. The thought of Volquez getting the ball makes you shiver, but what team has five good starters? Liriano is the key.

Marte will make all the pitchers better, not just with his bat and his speed on the bases, but with the ground he covers in left field and his fabulous arm. His body of work is small -- just one full season in the big leagues -- and it would have been nice to see another year of production before giving him a long-term contract. But it's hard to blame the Pirates for jumping into the deep water with Marte. The price -- $31 million for six years with two club options for 2020 and 2021 -- is right. Marte could end up being an incredible bargain.

The Pirates took a similar leap with McCutchen before the 2012 season, signing him to a six-year, $51.5 million contract with a club option for 2018. That has worked out pretty well for the team, don't you agree? McCutchen, the National League MVP last season, could become one of the greats in Pirates history. He's an absolute steal, especially when you consider that the New York Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract this offseason and that the Atlanta Braves gave an eight-year, $135 million deal to Freddie Freeman. That's the kind of money Alvarez figures to get one day, although it almost certainly won't come from the Pirates. He quickly will price himself out of this market.

But Alvarez is a worry for another day. Now is the time to revel in the Pirates' good news after a long, cold winter. Everyone in baseball is predicting stardom for prospect Gregory Polanco, who is expected to join the team this summer. Isn't it fun imagining an outfield of Marte, McCutchen and Polanco for 4½ seasons?

It's feeling a little warmer already, isn't it?

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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