PITTSBURGH -- Three days after filling out their rotation by trading for Jon Niese, the Pirates opened up a spot by dealing right-hander Charlie Morton to the Phillies.
The Pirates received Minor League right-hander David Whitehead, a 34th-round pick in the 2013 Draft, in exchange for Morton. In seven years with the Pirates, Morton went 41-62 with a 4.39 ERA. Last season, Morton put together a strong stretch after coming off the disabled list but finished with a 9-9 record and 4.81 ERA.
This trade should be viewed as a precursor to another acquisition, as the Pirates' rotation is once again incomplete. They have four starters in Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Niese and Jeff Locke. They have essentially swapped Niese for Morton and therefore still need to fill the void left by A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ in the middle of the rotation.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington said the plan is to make this trade the first in a series of moves. At the Winter Meetings last week, the Bucs were linked to a number of free-agent pitchers, from reclamation projects like Justin Masterson to a second-tier starter in Scott Kazmir.
"We like the player [Whitehead] we got in return, but the flexibility that we have to add depth to the club is something that we felt was important," Huntington said Saturday at PirateFest. "We wouldn't have done this blindly. At the same time, you can't line everything up perfectly."
The Bucs also cleared up salary to make a bigger acquisition, if that is indeed their intention. Morton was due to make $8 million next year, plus most likely a $1 million buyout of his $9.5 million club option in 2017.
Already this offseason, the Pirates have shed about $27 million off their projected 2016 payroll by non-tendering Pedro Alvarez and trading Neil Walker and Morton. They added $9 million back by trading for Niese and $3 million by signing right-hander Juan Nicasio.
"A big part of the motivation was to free some dollars to allow us to deepen the club, to re-establish our depth," Huntington said. "Assuming we're able to do that via trade or free agency, the acquisition of Jon Niese deepened our rotation to get a little bit more creative and reallocate some dollars."
Morton put together dominant stretches for the Pirates, but he was inconsistent. He was 5-0 with a 1.62 ERA in his first five starts off the disabled list last season but went 4-9 with a 5.93 ERA in his final 18 outings.
"He was trying to find the proper mechanics to get him in that flow again," catcher Chris Stewart said. "He was working on something new every week to try to get that back and just never really got it fully back throughout the season."
Whitehead spent the entire 2015 season with the Phillies' Class A Advanced Clearwater affiliate, going 9-11 with a 4.44 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 25 starts. The 23-year-old was 4-4 with a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts in the New York-Penn League in '14, his first professional season. He is expected to be in Double-A Altoona's rotation next year.
"He's a big, physical right-hander who puts the ball on the ground and has the makings of a changeup and a curveball," Huntington said, pointing out the irony that Whitehead's profile sounds a lot like that of Morton. "We like the potential he brings."
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.