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Even without RHP A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates counting on deep starting rotation

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BRADENTON, Fla. - The Pittsburgh Pirates are not the only team that's proud of its pitching.

The game is seeing an influx of young, power arms like Jose Fernandez and Michael Wacha. Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright are in their primes. Masahiro Tanaka got the fifth-largest contract for a pitcher before ever making a start in the majors.

"I do think the game runs in cycles, and you are seeing a huge cycle of up arms, big-time arms that have skills," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "These guys are mowing people down. You're just seeing more younger pitching beating good-hitting clubs right now than what's happened in a long time."

Hurdle saw it firsthand last season. Pittsburgh starters led the National League in strikeouts per nine innings (7.87), ranked third in shutouts (16), and were fourth in wins (64) and ERA (3.50).

The Pirates opened spring training 2014 with enough pieces to put together another solid rotation as they try to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1991-92.

Although Hurdle has not yet announced his opening day starter, the assignment likely will go to left-hander Francisco Liriano. The NL comeback player of the year went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts last season and handcuffed Cincinnati in the wild-card playoff game.

Liriano will be counted upon to fill the leadership void created when A.J. Burnett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

"Liriano was more of a quiet presence, but he took the ball every time and competed just like A.J. did," catcher Russell Martin said. "You can't always replace somebody, but the next guy can do what he can to make his own mark."

Right-hander Gerrit Cole made just 19 starts as a rookie last year, but he already is No. 2 in the rotation and has the stuff to be the ace by season's end. The top overall pick in the 2011 draft, Cole went 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA after being called up to the majors in June.

Cole is the first in what could be an impressive line of homegrown pitchers to join the rotation over the next few years.

Right-hander Jameson Taillon, a first-round selection in 2010, will begin this season at Triple-A but likely will get a call-up sometime this summer. When he arrives, expectations will be high.

"Most of the time, a young player comes up and has some struggles," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Gerrit set the bar a little bit higher."

Huntington has emphasized pitching, especially high schoolers, in the draft. From 2009-11, the Pirates took pitchers with 22 of their first 30 picks. Eighteen of them signed for a total of $25.6 million in bonuses — about a half-million less than what the Pirates paid their top six starters last season.

Nearly two years after Tommy John surgery, right-hander Charlie Morton looks to build on the momentum he established last season. Morton went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts and put up a 63 per cent groundball rate with a devastating sinker.

Morton is firmly entrenched in the middle of the rotation after getting a $21 million, three-year contract in December.

It's hard to say what the Pirates will get out of Wandy Rodriguez, who exercised his $13 million option in the off-season. If healthy, the left-hander could fill the No. 4 spot.

Last season, Rodriguez went down in June due to chronic pain in his pitching arm and finally was shut down in mid-September. He started soft tossing in December as he recovered at home in the Dominican Republic, and on Friday, Rodriguez threw his first bullpen session and was pain-free.

"I felt a little bit nervous," he acknowledged. "But every time I throw now, I feel more comfortable."

The Pirates say they expect Rodriguez to be ready for opening day.

The final spot in the rotation will be filled by either righty Edinson Volquez or lefty Jeff Locke. Volquez signed a $5 million deal after going a combined 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers last season.

The 26-year-old Locke got off to a fantastic start last year and was chosen for the NL All-Star team. But he faltered in the second half, was removed from the rotation in September and was not on the post-season roster.

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