The Pittsburgh Pirates have made a number of offseason moves, thereby adding depth in key spots. That’s true, even though none of the newly acquired players figure to be stars, meaning that the Pirates aren’t likely to be contenders anytime soon.

Kevin Correia is where Zach Duke should have been, but for less money than Duke would have received in arbitration, and probably less downside. Correia started about the same time as Duke, but improved steadily, eventually “crossing” Duke, who was on his way down, so that Correia is now half a game or so better. With luck, the Pirates will in 2011 get the “Zach Duke” of 2009, or more likely, 2008, for the kind of money that Duke has been paid recently.

With this replacement, plus the fortuitous trade for James McDonald last summer, the Pirates have the makings of a rotation that could include McDonald, Paul Maholm, Correia, and Ross Ohlendorf for starters. The fifth spot is a question mark, with the likely candidates being Charlie Morton, Brian Burres and Jeff Karstens.

But note that for a change, the Pirates have a shot at a full, if inferior, rotation. Both Karstens and Burres are legitimate fifth starters, with Morton being the high-risk, high-reward prospect of the bunch.

Even if there were a situation like last year where Morton and Ohlendorf BOTH had to be removed from the rotation simultaneously (one for injuries, one for underperformance), the Pirates have identified adequate replacements at the back end. For a change, the weakness will be at the front end.

That’s because “back end” now refers to an ERA of about 5.00. That would be a far cry from say, 2006, when back-enders Ryan Vogelsong, Oliver Perez and Kip Wells all had ERAs over 6.00, or 2008, when there was a similar situation with Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny, Yoslan Herrrera and John van Benschoten, with Phil Dumatrait and Ian Snell not much better.

Likewise, the addition of veteran infielders Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz reinforces the lineup after a fashion. Overbay is a one to one-and-a-half win above replacement (WAR) player, much like the other corner outfielder, Jose Bautista, that the Pirates thought they traded to Toronto in 2008. Overbay was signed for about the money such a player might be making in his final “arb” year.

Overbay could surprise his new team on the upside, like Bautista did. More to the point, he might play just well enough so that some contending team might try to grab him before trade deadline, giving up one or two good prospects, as the Los Angeles Dodgers did last year with James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel.

Diaz, moreover, is a right-handed batter who can platoon with lefties Garrett Jones and John Bowker in right field, and (potentially) Andrew Lambo. If Diaz and the left-handed platoon partners can EACH be a one (WAR) producer playing part time, the sum could be the equivalent of a full-time league average player. Together, Overbay and Diaz bolster the lineup on the right side of the field, where it is weakest.

The Pirates are still a low-budget team that won’t soon acquire the talent it will need to get to the top. But it is beginning to do what other similarly constrained teams have been doing, trying to lift itself out of the cellar by its bootstraps, step by step. The result won’t be a championship team, but it could be a pleasant surprise after 18 consecutive losing years.

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