Huntington set with Pirates' starters
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The Pirates' starting rotation, barring an unexpected development, is set for 2008.
General manager Neal Huntington plans to preserve all of his options regarding possible acquisitions, as per his general policy, but he made clear yesterday that the team's starters for the coming season will be Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Matt Morris and Zach Duke.
"We have not really been in the market for a starting pitcher," Huntington said. "We have been looking to add pitching depth -- a starting option or bullpen help -- but we like our starting five."
His words have been backed by deeds.
For instance, agents representing free-agent starters have said in recent days that it has been quite some time since their most recent contact with Huntington. Barry Axelrod, agent for Butler native Matt Clement, said yesterday he had not heard from the Pirates since early December and that it "doesn't appear" there is any interest on their part. Two other agents for prominent starters had similar tales.
Moreover, as Huntington acknowledged, "a number" of free-agent starters -- mostly at the minor-league level -- based their decisions to sign with other teams because they knew of the Pirates' upfront commitment to their starting five.
That might explain why Chad Durbin, a free-agent right-hander the Pirates liked, chose Philadelphia last month and signed for one year at $900,000. Phillies general manager Pat Gillick told reporters at the time that Durbin was "in the mix for the fifth spot in the rotation," along with injured Adam Eaton and Rule 5 draft pick Travis Blackley.
If Huntington adds a pitcher between now and next season, he said, it most likely will be someone who would work primarily out of the bullpen but start if needed. Right-handed relief remains the team's most glaring need.
The most eyebrow-raising member of the Pirates' anointed rotation surely is Duke.
He is now two forgettable years removed from his remarkable debut in 2005 and coming off an elbow injury this past summer, when he went 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA and .359 opponents' batting average. But management has made known to Duke, 24, that it retains full confidence in him and will give him every chance to rediscover his peak form.
"I appreciate that. It means a lot to me that they believe in me," Duke said. "At the same time, my approach going into spring training is that I'm competing for a spot. I know there will be other guys there, and I'm not taking anything for granted."
The wild card in all this is Morris.
The Pirates owe him $10 million next season, which is 20 percent of their projected $50 million payroll, and have made his availability known to other teams. That front has been predictably quiet, but it could change quickly if two of the game's wealthiest teams -- the New York Mets and Yankees -- turn to Morris to address rotation needs.
If Morris were moved, the Pirates almost surely would be forced to replace his experience and durability from the outside. Next on the current depth chart are Sean Burnett, Phil Dumatrait, John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington and Ty Taubenheim, all of whom spent significant time in the minors last season.
NOTES -- The Pirates have had no contact with free-agent catcher Johnny Estrada since before Christmas, though mutual interest appears intact. The team wants to examine Estrada's medical records after he had elbow and knee surgeries this offseason. ... The pitchers participating in the volunteer minicamp, which begins Tuesday in Bradenton, Fla., will be limited to those on the 40-man roster. Huntington said that all 24 of those pitchers are healthy.
First Published January 3, 2008 12:00 am