“We are evolving as an organization. We’ve got a little more to spend now. For the right guy, we can go a little bit beyond our comfort zone.”

This quote from Pirates GM Neil Huntington was in reference to the team’s efforts to upgrade its bullpen, but it could also apply to the rotation and might as well be the team slogan heading into 2015. With Tuesday’s news that the Pirates have signed Francisco Liriano to a market value contract (the largest free agent contract in team history) for a pitcher who figured to be in demand, along with the signing of A.J. Burnett in November, the Pirates are signaling a next step in their evolution into a contender.

Over the first four years of the Ray Searage Experience, the Pirates have followed a consistent method for rotation building. Step 1: look to the scrap heap for starters who can induce ground balls, miss bats, and have peripherals that suggest a possible regression to better performance. Step 2: let pitching coach Ray Searage work his magic. This could be called the throw-stuff-against-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks era.

In 2011, this resulted in the rebirth of Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia making the All-Star game. The next three years saw even better results as a better class of pitchers (A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edison Volquez) saw their careers resurrected under Searage’s tutelage.

Successive surprise playoff appearances have validated the system. The team has won despite entering the past two seasons with significant questions about both the quality and depth of its rotation. In order to take the next step and gain the incremental wins necessary to win the division, however, the Pirates needed to make investments into both the quality and depth of its rotation.

If the Pirates were taking the same approach heading into 2015, likely moves would have been from the Brandon Morrow-Brett Anderson-Josh Johnson class of pitchers – basically trying to catch lightning in a bottle yet again. And it may have worked. But by signing Liriano and bringing back Burnett, the Pirates will head into the season in a more comfortable position than they’ve been in recent memory.

Over the past four seasons, the average number of players making starts for the Pirates is ten, with about eight of those getting a minimum of four starts. As the rotation stands today, the eight who look to be in position to start any significant amount of games for the Pirates this season are Gerrit Cole, Liriano, Burnett, Vance Worley, Jeff Locke, Morton, Nick Kingham, and Jameson Taillon. That’s a far cry from past years that saw the Pirates rolling the dice on the likes of Jonathan Sanchez, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez, and James McDonald to get multi-start stints. The 2015 Pirates will still have their Cumptons, Stolmy Pimentels, and Casey Sadlers available, but there is enough depth of reliable arms available that the team won’t be forced to trot guys who aren’t up to the task to the mound every fifth day for any significant length of time. For a team that has finished within three games of the Cardinals each of the past two years, that difference is significant. Unlike the past two years, the Pirates aren’t gifting spots in the rotation to their projects. They are assuming contender status, going with more known quantities, and hedging their bets against the inevitable injuries and underperformance.

The most significant question left for the Pirates is if they are done putting together their 2015 rotation, or is there room for another arm. Bringing back Volquez still makes some sense, especially now that he’d be in competition with Burnett for #3 status to start the season, rather than the guy called on to start a Wild Card game. If nothing else, he’s a guy who can go 25+ times with a league avererage-ish FIP, which has good value. You could also see the Pirates still taking a chance on a 2015 lottery ticket by taking a flyer from one of Morrow-Anderson-Johnson.

The signing of Liriano is an announcement that they expect to contend in 2015. They’ll come into the season with a rotation that is five-deep with capable arms and still have healthy competition amongst prospects and projects to try to force their way onto the rotation, which would be a good thing.

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