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Pirates have some starting pitcher depth heading into season

Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. — It once was the stuff of science fiction — the New York Yankees completing a salary-dump trade with the Pirates — but no more.

The deal to bring right-hander A.J. Burnett to the Pirates was consummated Sunday night. After the excitement that comes with acquiring a potential front-line pitcher dies down, a question remains: What does it mean for the rest of the starting rotation?

"He's going to back up some guys into roles or spots in the rotation," manager Clint Hurdle said Sunday after directing a lively, 2.5-hour workout to open spring training. "It could create less of a gap from our fifth to our sixth guy. And it could rearrange some of the personnel so that our bullpen is stronger than we anticipated."

The Pirates essentially have six pitchers — Burnett, Kevin Correia, James McDonald, Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton — vying for five rotation spots. Former first-round pick Brad Lincoln will remain stuck in a holding pattern. Non-roster invitees Jo-Jo Reyes and Daniel Cabrera face even longer odds of making the team.

Ever the optimist, Hurdle sees upside amid the turbulence of a crowded field.

"One of the signs of a club getting better is when your decisions get tougher as you move forward," Hurdle said. "We're going to put people on the mound, let them pitch, and it will all shape itself up."

Each candidate can make a strong argument for staying in the rotation, but it won't exactly be an open audition.

Burnett and Bedard are locks, considering their experience and the size of their contracts. Burnett will make $33 million over the next two seasons, with $13 million of that being paid by the Pirates. Bedard, the lone lefty in the mix, signed a one-year, $4.5-million deal.

McDonald, who finished strong last season, and Morton, who was consistent throughout, are young building blocks of the rotation. The wild card is Morton's rehab from hip surgery. Hurdle proclaimed Morton "fit for duty," yet any setback likely would force the right-hander to begin the season on the disabled list.

The starters under closest scrutiny will be Correia and Karstens because both need to prove their durability.

"Our mindset for the starters is, we're looking for seven innings (per start) at a minimum," Hurdle said. "We want to go to the bullpen when we want to, not when we have to."

A sore shoulder forced Correia to miss the final month of last season, although he is healthy now. He has thrown more than 154 innings just once over eight years in the majors.

Karstens makes up for underwhelming stuff by being the craftiest pitcher on the staff, and he was the Pirates' most effective pitcher much of the past two seasons. He's worked seven innings in just 14 of his 76 career starts and spent the winter sweating out a boot camp-style regimen with a personal trainer in Tampa, Fla., to build his endurance.

"The way I look at it, somebody's always out there working hard and trying to take my job," Karstens said. "I've got to keep busting my butt."

Karstens, 29, has been a long reliever before. But that would seem an odd role for him now, given the $3.1 million contract he signed in January.

Correia, 31, is in the final year of his contract. He'll make $3 million, plus another $1 million in incentives if he reaches 210 innings and 32 games started.

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Pirates Spring Training 2012

Pirates Spring Training 2012

Photos from 2012 Spring Training in Bradenton Florida.




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