BRADENTON -- This time last spring, neither Francisco Liriano nor Charlie Morton had thrown a pitch in a Grapefruit League game.
Gerrit Cole was over at Pirate City, prepping for a season set to begin in Triple-A Indianapolis.
And the fifth spot in the rotation was about to be given to a guy with six big-league starts on his résumé.
This year's Pittsburgh Pirates consider their rotation a strength, though manager Clint Hurdle is taking a more conservative approach heading into the March 31 season opener against the Chicago Cubs.
"Time will tell," he said.
What isn't up for debate is the staff is in much better shape now than it was last March.
After missing the spring recovering from a freak injury to his non-pitching arm, Liriano won 16 games last season and was voted the National League Comeback Player of the Year. Already tabbed this year's Opening Day starter, Liriano has a 2.31 earned-run average this spring, though he left Thursday night's start against the Baltimore Orioles with tightness in his groin, an injury he said "wasn't serious at all."
Morton was recovering from Tommy John surgery last March but returned to make 20 starts and post a 7-4 record, good enough for the Pirates to grant the Bradenton resident a three-year, $21 million extension that could top out at $30 million.
And Cole, who the Pirates chose with the first overall pick in 2011, made his big-league debut last June and went 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts.
None of the three was on the roster when the Pirates opened last season at home against the Chicago Cubs. This year, Pittsburgh is banking on having all three -- along with Wandy Rodriguez, limited to 12 starts last season because of a forearm injury -- for the duration of the spring and summer, planning from them to reach and possibly eclipse the 30-start, 200-inning plateau.
"Wandy's back and we've got Edinson (Volquez) this year, who's getting a lot better with the fastball," Liriano said. "I think we're going to be OK."
Pirates starters were fourth last year in the National League in ERA (3.50) while allowing a league-low 837 hits. Making those numbers even more impressive is fewer than half of the starts last season -- 76 -- were made by Liriano, Cole, Morton and Rodriguez.
No one on the team made more starts last year than A.J. Burnett, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason and was the Phillies' starter Saturday at McKechnie Field.
"Those are our top guys," catcher Russell Martin said. "As we got deeper, the pitching got better and better. And the guy nobody is talking about is Locke."
That is Jeff Locke, who seized the fifth spot out of spring training, won 10 games and made the All-Star team before struggling late in the summer. Locke matched Burnett with a team-best 30 starts, but is likely to start this season in Triple-A Indianapolis after the Pirates gave $5 million to Volquez, a free agent.
Locke hasn't pitched in a game this spring because of soreness on his side.
Though Volquez has struggled this spring (0-3, 9.64 ERA), Martin looked past the statistics.
"The numbers don't really correlate to the quality of pitches," Martin said, "and how consistent he has been throughout this spring. ... I only know the games I've caught. And from what I've seen, I see something I can work with."
Each starter brings something different. Morton, according to FanGraphs, threw the largest percentage of fastballs (71.4) -- though Cole averaged a staff-best 96.1 miles per hour -- while Liriano threw sliders (36.3), and Rodriguez's go-to pitch was a curveball (31.1).
According to Martin, however, diversity isn't the staff's best asset.
"Bottom line, the guy on the mound, in that moment, is he competitive? Is he going to compete?" Martin said. "All our guys go out there and compete. ... You do start recognizing pitches better if you keep seeing sinker, sinker, sinker, sinker -- eventually, your eyes get used to it, so I do get what you're saying. But most importantly, who is going to outcompete who?
"Honestly, that's what important to me."
For a team not expected to blow anyone out with offense -- the Pirates didn't do much tinkering with a unit that scored 634 runs in 2013, ninth in the NL -- pitching will be of the utmost importance if Pittsburgh is to secure a return trip to the playoffs.
And while Hurdle is waiting to see how it plays out, he's confident in the guys he will be sending out to the mound each night.
"They love representing, and they love challenging each other and pushing each other. It's a real close-knit group," he said. "It's been fun to watch Charlie's evolution. Wandy's in a very good place this spring, you hear him he's talking, he's engaging, he feels healthy.
"We like our guys, and I still think there's growth in front of all of them."