Hart set to claim final rotation spot

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BRADENTON, Fla. — And the Pirates’ No. 5 starter is … Kevin Hart?

It sure sounded that way today, listening to manager John Russell chat with reporters after the second day of spring training workouts.

This offseason, management has described the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation being a toss-up between Hart and Daniel McCutchen, with Brad Lincoln providing pressure from Triple-A.

This afternoon, however, Russell mentioned Hart when talking about the starting pitchers, then listed McCutchen among the bullpen crew.

“There’s competition and (Hart) knows it,” Russell said. “He’s going to do everything he can to make sure he makes a good impression and shows he’s ready for it. We’ve got some other very good candidates, but he’s working awfully hard. Time will tell, but he’s in a good position right now.”

Hart tweaked his mechanics this past offseason, hoping to avoid a repeat of his performance (1-8, 6.92 ERA in 10 starts) with the Pirates last year.

“He feels a lot more comfortable,” Russell said. “You can tell he’s on a mission. Everything he’s doing, from his PFPs (fielding drills) to his sides, he’s really focusing on what he’s got going on.”

Hart looked especially sharp a month ago in minicamp and was just as good Thursday in his spring debut bullpen session. Hart was so good, in fact, that even the normally stoic Russell gushed a bit.

“He’s throwing the ball really, really well,” Russell said, raising his voice and his eyebrows in emphasis. “So we’re very excited.”

A few other notes from this afternoon’s workout at Pirate City:

— Neil Walker worked out at another new position — second base. “I’m going to try ‘em all,” Walker said, with a laugh. Walker fielded grounders from infield coach Carlos Garcia on Field 3.

— Reliever Jean Machi was given medical clearance and threw a bullpen session. Machi was held out of yesterday’s workout for extra physical tests.

— Jimmy  Barthmaier (shoulder surgery) threw off the bullpen mound. Coach Luis Dorante caught Barthmaier’s session. Before it began, Dorante shooed away volunteer coach Manny Sanguillen, who cracked that he was going to start yelling if Dorante let a single pitch get past him. “Go away. Go watch the catchers hit, Manny,” Dorante said with a wink.

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Hanrahan will begin season on DL

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Right-hander Joel Hanrahan, who’s a big part of the Pirates’ bullpen plans, will miss the start of the regular season due to a strained elbow.

An MRI taken about 10 days ago showed inflammation, but no structural damage. Hanrahan will have another MRI done Tuesday and also is scheduled to visit orthopedist Dr. James Andrews next week.

Hanrahan first was bothered by the pain in his elbow and tightness in his forearm last August, but pitched through it. It flared up again in mid-January, during minicamp and Hanrahan was shut down — no throwing, no weight lifting – for about a week.

“I felt good coming into minicamp, but probably cranked it up a little too much,” Hanrahan said.

Hanrahan will be re-examined today at Pirate City by Dr. Patrick DeMeo, and has been shut down indefinitely. General manager Neal Huntington expects Hanrahan to begin the season on the disabled list, but is not yet ready to set a timetable for Hanrahan’s return.

“Is it May 1? Is is June 1? We’ll know more as we get more information,” Huntington said.

Also today, the Pirates revealed infielder Ramon Vazquez had arthroscopic surgery in November to repair cartilage damage in his right knee. Vazquez’s workouts will be limited at the start of spring training, but he could be ready by Opening Day.

Vazquez said he sustained the injury Aug. 9 while running to first base in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Hanrahan will miss start of season

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Right-hander Joel Hanrahan, who’s a big part of the bullpen plans, will miss the start of the season due to elbow pain.

Hanrahan first was bothered by the pain in his elbow and tightness in his forearm last August, but pitched through it. It flared up again in mid-January, during minicamp. The condition did not improve, so the Pirates ordered an MRI about 10 days ago. The exam showed inflammation, but no structural damage. Hanrahan has been shut down — no throwing, no weight lifting — ever since.

“I felt good coming into minicamp, but probably cranked it up a little too much,” Hanrahan said.

Another MRI will be taken Tuesday. Hanrahan also is scheduled to visit orthopedist Dr. James Andrews next week.

The Pirates also revealed that infielder Ramon Vazquez had arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage in his right knee in November, and might  miss the start of the regular season. Vazquez sustained the injury Aug. 9 in the game against the St. Louis Cardinals. “I had pain the whole time I was running to first base,” said Vazquez, who played the rest of the season with the injury.

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Machi held out for tests

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Other than Joel Hanrahan (elbow), the only “casualty” on the first day of spring training was reliever Jean Machi.

The right-hander did not throw his scheduled bullpen session today. Instead, Machi was held out of workouts for what the Pirates described only as “some follow-up tests after his physical.”

Machi, 28, is a non-roster invitee who is coming off a fine winter ball season in Venezuela — he had 16 saves in 31 outings and a 1.25 ERA for Navegantes del Magallnes. With Hanrahan on the shelf, Machi was a bit less of a longshot candidate to make the team.

Originally signed by the Phillies in 2000, Machi has been up and down the minor leagues. The Pirates signed him as a minor-league free agent in February 2009. Machi pitched last summer for Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indy and put up a total of 12 saves and a 2.09 ERA in 41 games.

— Under sunny skies and with temps in the mid-50s, 35 pitchers and catchers and a handful of position players worked out at Pirate City. Bullpen sessions were thrown by Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm, Kevin Hart, D.J. Carrasco, Chris Jakubauskas, Jeff Karstens, Steven Jackson, Brad Lincoln, Anthony Claggett, Donnie Veal, Virgil Vasquez, Jack Taschner, Justin Thomas, and Bryan Morris. The pitchers each threw 35-40 pitches.

— GM Neal Huntington confirmed the Pirates are negotiating with outfielder Willy Garcia,17, who is one of the top amateur prospects in the Dominican Republic. But Huntington denied an Internet report that a deal, including a $280,000 bonus, already has been signed. “We’re optimistic we can get something done,” Huntington said. “He’s definitely a player we’re interested in.”

— It’s bad enough that Hanrahan can’t step onto the mound and throw a bullpen session, preparing to fill his role in the Pirates’ bullpen. But there’s another cruel twist to the elbow injury which stopped Hanrahan in his tracks just as spring training is getting started.

“My golf clubs are in storage in my garage right now,” Hanrahan said Thursday. “This is usually the time when I can get some golf in.”

Until doctors clear up what’s wrong with Hanrahan’s elbow — at the moment, the official diagnosis is a right flexor-pronator strain; Dr. James Andrews will take a crack at it next week — he won’t be doing anything strenuous with his right arm. That means no pitching, no weight lifting and no golf.

Someone (OK, it was me) suggested that Hanrahan try working as a caddy for Maholm, who by all accounts is a real demon with a driver.

“I’ll be a caddy,” Hanrahan said. “I can do that, especially for Paul. He’s got a little more money than some guys. Maybe he can tip me pretty good.”

Maholm is entering the second year of a $14.5 million contract. Hanrahan made $420,000 last season.

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Walker behind the plate again

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Neil Walker, who three years ago was switched to third base at the start of spring training, strapped on his catcher’s gear this morning at Pirate City and caught Zach Duke’s bullpen session.

Another position change is not in the works, though, for the former first-round draft pick.

“Just exploring my options,” Walker told me a few minutes ago by phone from Bradenton, Fla. “I’m trying to add value to myself and knock some of the rust off a little bit. I figured if there’s going to be a time to do it, it’d be now.”

The first official workout for pitchers and catchers is noon tomorrow. Duke was among four pitchers (the group also included Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen) who threw a very light and quick bullpen session this morning.

Walker asked management if he could fill in at catcher if the team needed help during spring training. The last pitcher he caught in a game was Shane Youman in the Arizona Fall League in 2006. Walker figures it had been four or five years since he caught Duke.

Walker hadn’t forgotten the mechanics of how to catch. But there was one aspect of the position his body wasn’t ready for. “You get sore pretty quickly,” Walker said, laughing. “I really need to go ice down.”

By doing some work now behind the plate, Walker could help himself if (or, more likely, when) he moves on to another organization. At third base, he’s caught in a logjam behind incumbent Andy LaRoche and fast-rising top prospect Pedro Alvarez. At catcher, he would be stuck behind Ryan Doumit, Jason Jaramillo and last year’s first-round draft pick, Tony Sanchez. Even if Walker converted again to an outfielder, his chances for playing time with the Pirates would be slim.

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Electronic sunshine

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Pirates media relations director Jim Trdinich a little while ago sent me a dose of electronic sunshine.

Jimmy T wrote in an e-mail that “more than half” of the 66 players invited to spring training camp already are working out at Pirate City, a day ahead of tomorrow’s reporting date for pitchers and catchers. Attached to his e-mail were two snaps of pitchers preparing for long toss and a batter in the cage … under sunny skies!

Paul Maholm is not yet in Bradenton, Fla., but he’s on his way. About a half hour ago, he Tweeted from his car: “On the road kind of bored since I only pretty much turn once for 9 hrs. Almost on I-75 though. Enjoy ur day.”

The Pirates’ first official workout for pitchers and catchers — a day filled with running, stretching and a bit of throwing — is noon Thursday.

Pitchers

Batter

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Sues coming to camp

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Right-handed reliever Jeff Sues has been given a non-roster invitation to spring training. That raises the total number of players in Pirates camp to 66, including 26 non-roster guys.

Sues, 26, was the Pirates’ fifth-round draft pick in 2005. Shoulder injuries limited him to eight games over the first three years of his career. In 2008, he went a combined 4-2 with a 3.22 ERA in 37 relief outings in Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona. Sues was named the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year and rewarded with a spot on the 40-man roster.

However, last season he went 2-6 with a 4.67 ERA in 48 appearances at Altoona and Indy. In December, he was taken off the 40-man roster and cleared waivers. He will wear No. 83 in camp — great news, if he was a wide receiver; bad news for a middle reliever.

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A snowy SpikesFest

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Pirates prez Frank Coonelly will hitch up his sleigh Sunday and slide over to State College for SpikesFest. The Class A team’s annual event will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Penn State Multi-Sport Facility. Right-hander Victor Black, the Pirates’ supplemental first-round pick in 2009, also is scheduled to attend.

— Due to snow (!!) Triple-A Indianapolis postponed its hot stove luncheon by one day until today. Ken Griffey Sr., who played for the Indians, will be the keynote speaker.

— Do you Tweet? If so, here are some Pirates-related folks to follow: @hanrahan4457 (Joel Hanrahan), @DanielMcCutchen, @Maholm28, @The_Dude_41 (Daniel Moskos), @RobBiertempfel (shameless self-promotion).

— Dave from White Plains, N.Y., is pondering the lineup and some possible lineup changes:

When should we expect to see Pedro Alvarez this season? The Pirates lineup would look good if it were something like: 1. McCutchen, 2. Iwamura, 3. Doumit, 4. Jones, 5. Alvarez, 6. Milledge, 7. Church, 8. Cedeno. What do you think the 2010 lineup will look like? If Doumit, Duke, Maholm, and Ohlendorf are traded mid-season along with the slew of relief pitchers they just signed, what do you think the Pirates will get in return and where do you think those players will be traded to?

I’m expecting to see Pedro in Pittsburgh by the end of July. It could be sooner, if he tears up @ Indy and Andy LaRoche struggles mightily.  If/when Pedro arrives, I think your projected lineup is pretty much on the mark. However, Milledge and Alvarez could flip-flop, to give Pedro time to ease in. Another wild card is Jeff Clement at first base. If he clicks (and can field the ball dependably) he could slip in behind Jones or Milledge in the 5 or 6 spot and Church would be on the bench.

Certainly, Doumit is a trade possibility and other teams have inquired about Duke and Maholm, but I’m not expecting a wholesale sell-off of players this summer. It would take a lot to pry away any of those pitchers – especially Maholm and Ohlendorf. The Pirates have acquired some position player help via the draft and trades, but stockpiling pitching always is a priority. If there are any trades, I’d expect the Pirates to seek a middle infielder (especially a shortstop) and starting pitching, starting pitching, starting pitching.

— The Hardball Times has chimed in on the murky issue of Jose Tabata’s age. They raised an interesting point I neglected to mention in my story in last Sunday’s Trib: ESPN analyst Keith Law ranked Tabata as the 57th-best prospect in the minors. But Law noted that if Tabata “is really 23 or 24, he wouldn’t make the top 100 at all.”

— Remember Jack Wilson? He certainly remembers Pittsburgh — the good and the bad, according to the LA Daily News.

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