SARASOTA, Fla. -- As encouraging as the Pirates' spring pitching has been -- their allowance of 5.2 runs per exhibition is among the Grapefruit League's lowest -- club officials are also enthused by four arms on the back burner.
Jeff Karstens is not as far back as the other three, as he completes rehabbing from biceps tendinitis. He is due to throw a bullpen session on Monday, after which pitching coach Ray Searage will look for a spot for his preseason debut.
Charlie Morton is set to throw 20 pitches of batting practice on Monday, the first time he will have faced hitters since May 29, when he was shut down and given a June 10 appointment for Tommy John surgery.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano (fractured right arm) also continues to make gradual progress in his limited throwing program.
Then there is Jose Contreras, who is squirreled away for midseason bullpen help and is another Tommy John surgery patient whose recovery is actually ahead of Morton's.
"This will be good for Charlie," Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington said of the righty's upcoming BP session. "He's anxious to compete with someone beyond himself.
"Liriano is about where we expected him to be. With that big heavy cast he had on for a long time, there was more atrophy in the right arm than we anticipated, but he remains on schedule, and is champing at the bit to begin competing."
Despite the fact Karstens will miss about three weeks of exhibition play, Huntington still considers him "on track" to be a part of the season-opening rotation.
Stiff competition for three vacant bullpen spots
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Most Major League clubs began this Spring Training with the Classic concern that it would be too long.
For Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, it may not be long enough. He may need more time for some relievers to pitch themselves out of contention for the three vacant seats in the bullpen.
There was no give on Sunday, either here against the Orioles or in Fort Myers against the Twins. Ten relievers combined to pitch 12 innings in the two wins, allowing five hits and one earned run -- and striking out 14.
Four bullpen spots belong to closer Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, lefty Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, who pitched a perfect inning in the 5-2 win over the Orioles and has allowed one run in five appearances.
Melancon wasn't alone in padding his resume:
• Ryan Reid, a 27-year-old non-roster righty, earned the save against the O's by striking out the side and has given up one hit in four outings.
• Hunter Strickland struck out two in an inning that stretched his scoreless spring to four appearances.
• Justin Wilson also pitched a scoreless inning to lower his ERA to 1.29 in seven innings.
• Mike Zagurski picked up two more strikeouts in a shutout inning against Minnesota and has fanned seven of the last eight men he faced.
Those last two are left-handers, vying with Kris Johnson for one of the open spots the Bucs would like for a southpaw to occupy.
"That would be the ideal," said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who said other teams have not called about the Bucs' apparent surplus of arms -- yet.
"Teams are still at the stage where they are trying to get a read on what they have," Huntington said. "Of course, you want to have a surplus, guys who can step in in case of injury or sub-performances."
• Hurdle and his coaches, with some front office input, will brainstorm following Monday's game against the Orioles in McKechnie Field about the initial camp cuts. The reassignments will not be announced, however, earlier than Wednesday -- the day Minor League exhibition games begin.
• Brandon Inge had a frustrating debut on the field against the Twins. He played third base, without handling a single chance in his five innings, and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.
"The question is Inge's bat. Can he do enough to help out offensively?" said Huntington, who is satisfied with the veteran's ability to handle the glove at numerous positions.
• Jose Tabata took the team lead by driving in his sixth run in the win over the Orioles. Spring Training or not, a significant step given that his lack of run production (a total of 72 RBIs in 1,072 Major League at-bats) has been a big concern.
"I called him a big chicken, because he threw a 3-and-0 slider to Adrian Gonzalez. Three-and-oh and you do that? Come on!" -- Gerrit Cole, on what he told Pirates teammate -- and Team Canada pitcher -- Chris Leroux following his triumphant start Saturday against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic
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.