Karstens' injury muddles Pirates' rotation

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, March 24, 2013, 6:18 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — With four days to go before the Pirates break camp, the final two spots in the starting rotation have yet to come into focus.

Right-hander Jeff Karstens likely is headed for the disabled list after being scratched from his scheduled start Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles. The club said Karstens, who declined a request for comment, is bothered by “continuing shoulder discomfort” due to biceps tendinitis.

At the start of spring training, Karstens was set to be the No. 4 starter, with the fifth job up for grabs. Now general manager Neal Huntington is mulling backup plans for both spots.

“We've kept four guys stretched out as Plan B, hoping we wouldn't have to use Plan B,” Huntington said. “It looks like we're going to have to use it. Now, we've got a decision among four (pitchers) for two spots. We were hoping to have four for one.”

The fifth spot has been a battle among Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez. No clear leader has emerged.

“So now the uncontrollable things begin to factor in: roster status, option status, opt-out status,” Huntington said. “Those begin to carry some weight in the process. When that happens, you err on the reversible versus the irreversible decisions.”

That could bode well for Sanchez. He can opt out of his minor league contract and sign elsewhere if the Pirates do not put him on the active roster before Tuesday morning.

It wasn't until last week that Gomez entered the thick of the rotation competition. Gomez is out of minor league options, so the Pirates can't send him to Triple-A Indianapolis unless he clears waivers.

Midway through camp, there were signs McPherson was the favorite to claim the No. 5 job. But the right-hander was roughed up in three of his past four outings, including a nine-run nightmare last Wednesday against the Atlanta Braves.

Last Saturday, Locke gave up three runs and seven hits in four innings against the Boston Red Sox. Pitching coach Ray Searage said Locke still is evolving into a big league pitcher.

“He's more confident and more poised on the mound now,” Searage said. “He's got a better idea of what he wants to do. It's good to have a conversation with the kid now, and he's on the right page. It's nice to talk to him about certain situations, whereas last year, he had to have a crash course on everything. You didn't want to overload the poor kid.”

Karstens first felt pain in his shoulder Feb. 19 and called off a bullpen session that day. He has not pitched in a Grapefruit League game, but he has worked in a couple of minor league games.

Karstens threw 50 pitches in a game Monday at Pirate City. He used a new overhead windup, which he said reduced the strain on his shoulder.

Right-hander Chris Leroux started in Karstens' place Sunday and gave up eight runs in one-third of an inning. Although Leroux wants to be a full-time starter — a role he had with Canada in the World Baseball Classic — he's already tabbed for the bullpen.

Francisco Liriano (broken arm) hopes to be ready by the first week of May. Charlie Morton (elbow surgery) is out until at least June.

“We've got some internal depth, but if there's a chance externally to improve, we'll always look for that,” Huntington said.

Because of the job auditions, the top three guys in the rotation — A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald — have been pitching in minor league games instead of facing ‘A' game competition. McDonald is scheduled to throw 100 pitches Monday at Pirate City.

“With Wandy and A.J., it's almost a conditioning exercise,” Huntington said. “Sure, you'd love to see them compete at this level. But the pitch count is almost more important that the competition.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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