Pittsburgh Pirates still have decisions to make before season opens next week

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 25, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Hours before making his first start in a Grapefruit League game, one of the guys penciled into the Pittsburgh Pirates' rotation was scratched.

One of the players fighting for a bench spot hasn't played since taking a pitch to the shoulder.

The 25-man roster has to be in earlier this year than last.

Oh, and did we mention this marks the last week of spring training?

Despite all this, general manager Neal Huntington didn't appear poised to push the panic button Sunday at McKechnie Field.

"It's not necessarily unsettling," he said before the Pirates hosted the Baltimore Orioles during their next-to-last home game of the spring. "We've had some guys do some things. They haven't just absolutely taken it and owned it, they've left the door open for other guys to compete with."

It wasn't long ago when Huntington expressed hope for the Pirates' starting rotation, which is more experienced than it has been in the past. But that unit took a bit of a hit Sunday when No. 4 starter Jeff Karstens was scratched from his scheduled start because of discomfort in his right shoulder.

Sunday was to mark the first Grapefruit League start of the spring for Karstens, who

was sidelined early in camp with biceps tendonitis.

"We talked about no hiccups and he would be on track," Huntington said. "This, obviously, is a hiccup, not being able to get him out there and throw his pitches (Sunday). But it is too early speculate 100 percent about what the next steps are."

This newest wrinkle means Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez, all of whom were in the running for the final spot in the rotation, are now looking to fill two empty slots.

Sanchez, a non-roster invitee and the most accomplished of the group, has emerged as a favorite after throwing eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball in his last two outings.

Per the terms of Sanchez's contract, the Pirates have until Tuesday afternoon to grant Sanchez's request to be released if he is not on the major-league roster.

"Jonathan has thrown the ball well as of late and obviously has the out on Tuesday, and we'll have a decision for him Tuesday," Huntington said.

There are other questions the Pirates need to answer, as well, as they head into the final week of Grapefruit League action before opening the regular season at home April 1 against the Chicago Cubs.

Jason Grilli will serve as the team's closer, with newly-acquired Mark Melancon to serve as a set-up role, and Jared Hughes a virtual lock to make the bullpen.

But the likes of Mike Zagurski, Chris Leroux and Tony Watson are also competing for a handful of open spots.

Leroux hadn't allowed a run this spring before he was tagged for eight of them, seven earned, starting in Karstens' place Sunday.

"I've been sharp and doing good up until this point. It was just a bad one," said Leroux, who had allowed five hits and walked none in seven inning heading into Sunday. "I'm sure people are going to say what they're going to say about this one. But it was just one outing."

Though Michael McKenry is serving as the backup catcher and new addition John McDonald is slated to back-up Clint Barmes at shortstop, the Pirates also have some open bench spots. Veteran Brandon Inge, a non-roster invitee who has the same agreement as Sanchez, hasn't played since March 20 after being hit in the shoulder with a pitch.

Another non-roster player, Brad Hawpe, asked for and was granted his release Saturday. That could leave the door open for outfielder Felix Pie, who entered Sunday hitting .308 with eight RBIs.

Pie spent the last three seasons with Baltimore.

"He's having a very good spring," said manager Clint Hurdle. "Everything we've asked him to do, he's done -- digging balls out of corners, running balls down, stealing bases, putting the barrel on it.

"We're continuing to keep our eyes open to all the options, keep getting guys at-bats."

Though time is of the essence, Huntington doesn't seem overly concerned of the decisions the Pirates need to make before submitting a 25-man roster.

And as he said, a team's roster April 1 can look different by the time May 1 rolls round.

"You'd love to almost come into spring training, knowing what you're 25-man roster is going to be," Huntington said. "But more importantly, you like to have depth behind it.

"We've had some decisions in the past that were maybe more by attrition, and that's when you're unsettled. But this is more decision by competition."

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