Pirates set rotation and bench with nine cuts
Locke in, McPherson out as fifth starter; Tabata over Presley as extra outfielder
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Alex Presley, last season's Opening Day left fielder, and rotation hopeful Kyle McPherson were among nine players cut Wednesday morning as the Pirates got down to their 25-man roster.
Also optioned to Triple-A was infielder Jordy Mercer, with six others being reassigned to the team's Minor League camp: pitchers Mike Zagurski, Ryan Reid and Vin Mazzaro; catchers Lucas May and Carlos Paulino; and outfielder Felix Pie. All but Presley and McPherson had been non-roster invitees to the big league camp.
McPherson politely declined to discuss the club's move after exiting manager Clint Hurdle's office, but Presley expressed disappointment with the decisions following "the best spring I've ever had, working on all the things they wanted me to work on and that I knew I needed to improve at."
The moves confirmed Jeff Locke as the fifth starter in a rotation that thus will include three left-handers, with Wandy Rodriguez and Jonathan Sanchez. Right-handers A.J. Burnett and James McDonald complete the quintet.
Josh Harrison claimed the final seat on the bench, with the expectation that Brandon Inge will open the season on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder blade. Until the decision is made on Inge, the Bucs actually still have 26 active players in camp. Final rosters have to be submitted Sunday.
"This was going to be a great day, either way," said Locke, the Pirates' steadiest starter in exhibition play, with a 3.38 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. "I was going to find out where I'd open the season, and whether it was here or in Triple-A. Just knowing was going to help me get ready."
Presley, who wasn't able to reach base often enough last season to keep his job in left and in the leadoff spot, had an on-base percentage of .396 in 24 spring games, while batting .311.
With Wednesday's moves, which came with two games left on the Pirates' Grapefruit League schedule, here is how the 25-man roster will shake out:
• Pitchers (12): Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Sanchez, Locke, Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, Mark Melancon, Chris Leroux, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez.
• Catchers (2): Russell Martin and Michael McKenry.
• Infielders (6): Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker, Clint Barmes, Pedro Alvarez, John McDonald and Harrison (Inge likely on DL).
• Outfielders (5): Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider, Garrett Jones, Jose Tabata.
Burnett finally paired with Martin in spring start
BRADENTON, Fla. -- On March 27, in the penultimate game of the Pirates' preseason, all concerned thought it would be a good idea for A.J. Burnett to finally get acquainted with his Opening Day catcher.
Thus, on Wednesday Burnett finally threw to Russell Martin. For the very first time in Spring Training.
The introductions went well. The re-introductions, that is, the two having regularly joined forces as teammates on the 2011 New York Yankees.
"But I'm not the same guy I was in New York, and he realizes I'm different," Burnett said after going the first three innings of the Pirates' 7-4 loss to Minnesota. "I'm not the four-seam, curveball, just-let-it-go guy. I've done a lot [of adjustments] since then."
In their seven weeks together in camp, Martin has caught one of Burnett's side sessions, but was limited to DH-ing during the pitcher's early Grapefruit League outings. Since March 9, Burnett had been doing his pitching in Minor League games at Pirate City.
"It was good to see his breaking ball working today," said Martin, alluding to the fact pitchers weren't yet in breaking-ball shape the last time he caught Burnett. "It gives me confidence going into the season, to have seen his breaking ball and know what it's doing."
Burnett allowed four hits and two runs in his three innings, all he was meant to pitch. That was the reason manager Clint Hurdle had a DH in his lineup, knowing Burnett's turn would come up once at most.
"It felt good to get out there in front of the fans and my guys," Burnett said. "Spring, for a guy my age and with what I've done, is just for getting ready. I've done that, and I feel great."
With roster set, Hurdle more confident than ever
BRADENTON, Fla. -- When the dust, and his 25-man roster, cleared, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle enthusiastically proclaimed the 2013 Pirates improved.
Make that, as they say on TV commercials, "new and improved," with a 48 percent turnover in Opening Day rosters from 2012 to 2013.
"No. 1, the rotation is the best since I've been here [since 2011]," Hurdle said. "And I gotta believe the best since [general manager Neal Huntington] has been here [since 2008]."
The last two pieces of that rotation were put in place only the last two days -- lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke, who survived his competition with right-hander Kyle McPherson.
"The Minor League pedigree speaks for itself," Hurdle said of Locke, somewhat preordained for the promotion by being named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season after going 10-5, with a 2.48 ERA, at Triple-A Indianapolis. "And I like the growth -- the biggest from anyone I've seen from last year. The fastball's got more life than you think, the breaking ball can be sharp, and when his changeup arrives, this will be a guy with some weapons."
Hurdle also singled out a bullpen that welcomes newcomers Jeanmar Gomez, Chris Leroux and lefty Justin Wilson.
"The versatility of the bullpen has been ramped up. We got three guys able to [pitch long]," the manager said, adding "The bench is gonna be more valuable than the bench last season."
Those reserves include veteran infielders John McDonald and Brandon Inge (once he comes off his anticipated season-starting DL stint, with a sore shoulder bone), a born-again Jose Tabata and the ever-versatile Josh Harrison.
The Last Word
"Rumor has it, we're going to have Spring Training next year in Florida -- because it's supposed to be hot." -- Hurdle, after the Pirates' final home exhibition game started at 55 degrees, the fourth McKechnie Field game to start in sub-60-degree conditions.
• Following Wednesday's game, the Pirates cleared room on their 40-man roster for starting pitcher Sanchez and infielder Inge, who both made the club after being invited to Spring Training on Minor League contracts, by designating for assignment infielder Clint Robinson and right-hander Hunter Strickland.
• Rodriguez, who like A.J. Burnett, last pitched in a Grapefruit League game in early March, went 6 2/3 innings, throwing 94 pitches, Wednesday in a Triple-A game at Pirate City.
• Alvarez is on fire approaching Opening Day, going 4-for-5 with three RBIs Wednesday.
"I'm feeling good, and will try to transition it into the season," said Alvarez, who has clinched the clean-up spot in the Bucs' lineup.
• Lineup for Thursday's Florida finale, in Tampa against the Yankees:
Marte LF; Jones RF; McCutchen CF; Alvarez 3B; G. Sanchez 1B; Walker 2B; Martin C; Barmes SS; Locke P.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.