How muddled is pitching picture?

Cloudy skies this morning led to a 46-minute rain delay during the Orioles-Pirates game at McKechnie Field.
Cloudy skies this morning led to a 46-minute rain delay during the Orioles-Pirates game at McKechnie Field.

BRADENTON, Fla. — MLB Network analyst John Hart, who was general manager in Cleveland when Pirates GM Neal Huntington worked there, thinks Huntington made a great move by acquiring right-hander A.J. Burnett. “They went out and they got a big, strong guy with good stuff,” Hart said. “Obviously, he struggled in New York, but I think that was a gamble and a risk worth taking. You put him in a different environment, I think A.J. Burnett is gonna help. Then, they went and got the lefty, Erik Bedard. He’s always been a strikeout guy, swing-and-miss kind of stuff, (but) he’s been plagued with a lot of injuries throughout his career. They added two guys that they needed. Starting pitching, they have to have it if they’re gonna go.”

Yet, not everyone is convinced Burnett and Bedard will make a huge difference in Pittsburgh. Former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling, who now works for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” offered this opinion to Trib reporter Bob Cohn: “If you want to look at it realistically, their opening day starter is a guy that the Red Sox were trying to throw into their No. 5 spot last year for three or four September starts, and their No. 2 guy is a guy that somebody was willing to pay millions and millions and millions of dollars for him to go play for somebody else. If those guys take that personally and play with chips on their shoulder, then you’ve got a little different ballgame. But there are so many challenges for them to do what they do.”

»»» If the Pirates open the season with a seven-man bullpen, then it looks like there are five guys — Chris Leroux, Daniel McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, Daniel Moskos and Jared Hughes — fighting for one spot. At this point, I would say the winner is Lincoln.

Lincoln can be the long reliever and also make a spot start in case Charlie Morton’s not quite ready by April 14. He also has pitched the past four years at Triple-A Indy and has little left to prove in the minors; what he is, is what he is.

Leroux is out of options, and I’d be willing to bet management believes they can sneak him through waivers. A few minutes ago, Leroux insisted he hasn’t gotten word yet one way or the other. “I feel like I’ve made the most of my last three outings,” Leroux said. “So, we’ll see what happens Tuesday (when final cuts are made). I just want to be part of that seven-man pen.” Leroux said he’s been told to junk his changeup and go back to being more of a power pitcher. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “It’s kind of one less thing to worry about.”

McCutchen gave up three runs on three hits in one inning today against the Twins, further dimming his chances. Jared Hughes is very much a prospect, but he has options remaining and is better probably suited for a short-relief role. The Pirates would be comfortable with only one lefty in the pen, which hurts Moskos’ chances.

After today’s game, manager Clint Hurdle bristled when asked if the bullpen situation is muddled. “Muddled? Maybe in your eyes, but not in ours. Everybody who’s still in camp is battling for jobs.”

»»» Here’s a wild card for the bullpen equation: Juan Cruz was struck on the right forearm by a line drive today. He was taken out of the game as a precaution, and no other information is available. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning to see what shape he’s in.

»»» Chris Resop shaved his head to raise awareness for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation on Friday during a “Cut for the Cure” event in Tampa. “It was child who has cancer who took the first cut,” Resop said, smiling as he rubbed his bald dome. “I’m going to keep it this way all season,”

Last year, Resop and his wife, Kara, made several visits to Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill. The two of them raised about $17,000 which was used to battle pediatric cancer. “I had a cousin who had cancer when she was a little girl, so this really hits home for me,” Resop said. “You see these kids who are suffering and you wonder, ‘What did they do to deserve this?’ It makes you think and want to help.”


Last game at McKechnie

The equipment truck is packed and ready to roll north to Pittsburgh.
The equipment truck is packed and ready to roll north to Pittsburgh.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Today is the final spring training game this year at McKechnie Field. The Pirates have a split-squad — they’ll host the Orioles and travel to Fort Myers to face the Twins. A boatload of minor leaguers were brought up to fill out both lineups. A handful of prospects also will make the trip to Philadelphia for the exhibition games Monday and Tuesday.

»»» Clint Hurdle was asked to assess his second spring training as the Pirates’ skipper: “We’ve seen our starting rotation depth play out. We knew we had a competition in the bullpen with good arms and more capable people than spots. We’ve seen that play out. You would’ve like to seen maybe a couple of guys jump and perform a little better than they have, just to create some separation. The overall ownership of the at-bats has been much better this spring. The cohesiveness of the group is starting to come together. It’s never been about wins and losses (in spring). You always like to win more games, but we wanted to get guys opportunities to play. We told a lot of people there would be opportunities (to win jobs), so we didn’t change our minds and become a slave of the game just to win games. We got guys out there and let them compete. We took inventory of everybody in camp; we’ve got a good read on even the guys we’ve sent out. So, overall, the camp served a purpose. These guys are itching to play, but we’ve still got some unfinished business here, as far as our pitchers finishing some things.”

»»» Ex-Bucco news: At Twins camp this morning, Ryan Doumit officially was named Joe Mauer’s backup when Drew Butera was optioned to Triple-A.

»»» A.J. Burnett took batting practice this morning with the other pitchers at McKechnie Field. Before taking his hacks, Burnett went through the usual warmup ritual of … bunting! He appeared to hold the bat out a teensy bit more than usual, perhaps, but dropped down four bunts without problem. The star of pitchers’ BP, however, was Brad Lincoln, who ripped a towering shot over the right field wall. The ball was about a third of the way up the lgiht pole as it left the park.

Spring game No. 27: Orioles v. Pirates, 1:05 p.m., Bradenton, Fla.

Orioles (11-12): 1. Endy Chavezcf, 2. Nolan Reimold lf, 3. JJ Hardy ss, 4. Nick Johnson dh, 5. Wilson Betemit 3b, 6. Chris Davis 1b, 7. Ronny Paulino c, 8. Jai Miller rf, 9. Robert Andino 2b. Jake Arietta rhp

Pirates (8-17-1): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Nate McLouth rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Neil Walker 2b, 5. Casey McGehee 3b, 6. Garrett Jones 1b, 7. Rod Barajas c, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Erik Bedard lhp

Also scheduled to pitch: Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Leroux

Spring game No. 28: Pirates v. Twins, 1:05 p.m., Fort Myers, Fla.

Pirates (8-17-1): 1. Jose Tabata rf, 2. Josh Harrison ss, 3. Yamaico Navarro 2b, 4. Matt Hague 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Miles Durham lf, 7. Robbie Grossman cf, 8. Michael McKenry c, 9. Kevin Correia rhp.

Also scheduled to pitch: Juan Cruz, Daniel McCutchen

Twins (17-13): TBA Anthony Swarzak rhp


Free Matt Hague?

Raise it? Not quite. The Bucs and Rays tied today.
Raise it? Not quite. The Bucs and Rays tied today.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Matt Hague isn’t trying to hit homers, but he’s doing that anyway. His two-run shot in today’s 3-3 tie against the Rays was his fifth home run of the spring, tops on the team. “The moment I try to do too much is when I find myself in trouble,” Hague said. “I’m trying to keep my focus as narrow as I can, get a good pitch and let my hands work. When I try to do too much, my hands don’t get involved. I’ve lowered my hands to a better hitting spot, really trying to get them going so I can drive it.”

Hague is batting .383 this spring and has 13 hits in his past 31 at-bats. He leads the team with five homers. “They told me at the beginning that I had a chance to make the club,” Hague said. “I’ve given them a taste of what I can do. The roster hasn’t been set yet. There are two games left (in Florida). I’m just trying to finish up strong and see what happens.”

»»» Josh Harrison walked as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, which kept his 0-for-13 skid intact. Despite the slump, Harrison is batting .359 this spring.

»»» Early in camp, manager Clint Hurdle said he’d prefer to have all the roster decisions out of the way sooner than later. But the plan now is to decide the roster makeup — seven or eight relievers, five or six bench guys — and make the final cuts during the two-day exhibition series in Philadelphia next week. “One of the greatest abilities we have in the United States of America is to change our mind,” Hurdle said. “I changed my mind.”

»»» Reliever Tim Alderson was called up from minor league camp and made a rare Grapefruit League appearance today. He worked two scoreless innings and allowed two hits. “I was really impressed,” Hurdle said. “Good mound presence, worked through a situation with a runner on base. All the things we threw at him, he handled very well. A good outing.” In related news, the Giants today put Freddy Sanchez on the disabled list due to a potentially career-threatening shoulder injury.

»»» Farewell, Ryota Igarashi. A day after sending the righty to minor league camp, the Pirates traded him to the Blue Jays in exchange for a PTBNL or cash.

»»» A website called claims to have run 50,000 computer simulations of the 2012 MLB season. According to the Predictalator (their name for it, not mine), the Rangers won the World Series in 16.4 percent of the sims. The Phillies were next-highest at 15.8 percent. The Pirates won the NL Central 1 percent of the time, claimed a NL wild card 1 percent of the time and won zero league championships or World Series titles.


Three days left in Florida


BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates are facing a lefty starter today for the 13th time in 26 spring training games. That’s unusual. … Matt Hague has 11 hits, including three homers, in his past 28 at-bats. He leads the club with four home runs. … The team RBI leader is Garrett Jones, with 14. .. … Jose Tabata has nine hits in his past 26 at-bats. … Andrew McCutchen ranks among the Grapefruit League leaders with a .615 slugging percentage.

»»» MLB Network will feature the Pirates in its “30 Clubs in 30 Days” series at 7 p.m. Saturday.

»»» Pedro Alvarez will get at-bats at minor league camp today. The rules are a little looser in minor league games, so he will be able to lead off every inning and get more at-bats against live pitching.

Spring game No. 26: Rays v. Pirates, 1:05 p.m., Bradenton, Fla.

Rays (8-16): 1. Desmond Jennings cf, 2. Luke Scott dh, 3. Evan Longoria 3b, 4. Ben Zobrist rf, 5. Carlos Pena 1b, 6. Matt Joyce lf, 7. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 8. Jose Molina c, 9. Reid Brignac Matt Moore lhp

Pirates (8-17): 1. Jose Tabata rf, 2. Yamaico Navarro lf, 3. Andrew McCutchent cf, 4. Casey McGehee 3b, 5. Rod Barajas c, 6. Neil Walker 2b, 7. Matt Hague 1b, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Michael McKenry c. Tony Watson lhp


Setback for J-Mac, progress for Pedro

Not a good day: 3.2 IP, 7 H, 10 ER, 7 BB, 1 SO, 1 HBP (AP photo)
Not a good day: 3.2 IP, 7 H, 10 ER, 7 BB, 1 SO, 1 HBP (AP photo)

BRADENTON, Fla. — It was a miserable afternoon for James McDonald, who allowed 10 runs on seven hits and seven walks in 3 2/3 innings. The Twins whacked the Pirates, 11-6. But there was at least a little bit of upside, McDonald said: “The breaking ball was my one bright spot. It was decent at times, but I was still too inconsistent with it. I’d throw a good one, throw a bad one.”

Manager Clint Hurdle said McDonald can learn from the blowout. “There’s times when you don’t have your A game and things aren’t right,” Hurdle said. “You’ve got to adapt, improvise and overcome to the best of your ability. That was the exercise for him today. He had to find a way to do the best he could with what he had. He threw 83 pitches — it wasn’t about punishing (him), it was about needed to get work done. He went out and pitched, it wasn’t effective, the command was off, but the mindset has got to be blue-collar. He went out and finished. He knows the importance of going out and keep throwing pitches. Now, he’s got to (meet) with Ray (Searage, pitching coach) and get ready for his next start.”

»»» Pedro Alvarez went 2 for 5 today — two singles, two strikeouts — and nudged his batting average to .167. He has eliminated the toe tap from his swing. Instead, Alvarez will lift his front foot an inch or two, then quickly plant it as the pitcher delivers. “We talked about it after his last game.” Hurdle said. “I’m of the mindset, and I think he is too, that we’ve got to find a way to simplify some things. We’ve got him wide, just pick it up and put it down.”

Alvarez got 11 at-bats Wednesday in minor league games at Pirate City. He’ll head back to minor league camp Friday for another intense batting session. “He’ll get a bunch of at-bats, then play (Saturday) here,” Hurdle said. “We’ll just keep looking for some progress.”

»»» Hurdle did not offer any hints as to whether the Pirates will break camp with five or six bench players. Either scenario would be viable, as the Pirates won’t need a fifth starting pitcher until April 14, when Charlie Morton is slated to come off the DL. “We’ve talked about both scenarios,” Hurdle said. “You need to factor in the off days and how much extra pitching you think you’ll need or would the bat play better. That’s where we are in the discussions right now.”

»»» Hurdle also declined to name his primary set-up man for closer Joel Hanrahan — either Evan Meek or Jason Grilli would seem a good fit for the job. “There could be a situation where we don’t need a primary eighth-inning guy,” Hurdle said. “There’ll be a guy I go to the first time in the eighth inning and maybe he’ll get called the primary guy. But there are a couple of guys we’ve identified.”

»»» Yamaico Navarro (forearm contusion) is expected to be back in action tomorrow. He’s sat out the past two games after being hit by a pitch Tuesday.

»»» The Pirates will use a mix of all relief pitchers tomorrow against the Rays. The team has not announced which reliever will start the game, but it’s confirmed that Brad Lincoln will be somewhere in the mix.


Morton placed on DL


BRADENTON, Fla. — Having two off days among the first five days of the season gives the Pirates the luxury of not needing a fifth starter until April 14. Not coincidentally, that’s the day when righty Charlie Morton is expected to come off the disabled list and make his season debut. The Pirates opted to take a cautious approach with Morton, who’s recovering from hip surgery, and put him on the DL.

“We learned some lessons from James McDonald a year ago,” GM Neal Huntington said. Last year, McDonald rushed back from an oblique injury and struggled in the first six weeks of the season.

Morton will pitch a simulated game Wednesday at Pirate City, fly to Pittsburgh for Opening Day, then pitch for Triple-A Indianapolis on April 9 in Columbus, Ohio. “He’s a little bit disappointed,” Huntington said. “But we want to make sure we make the right decision for him and for us long term.”

»»» Jake Fox, Nick Evans, Ryota Igarashi and Eric Fryer were reassigned to minor league camp. “NIck had a tough camp with the bat,” Huntington said. “When we signed him we felt he would have a great chance to make our club because he can bounce around the field and swing the bat well. In Jake’s case, it was similar. Jake had a better camp with the bat. But we have some guys we felt were more versatile, a little better defensively.”

»»» The past few days have been rough for former Pirates. Pitchers Ian Snell, Zach Duke, John Grabow and John Van Benschoten all are looking for work. Also, infielder Steve Pearce was cut by the Twins.

Spring game No. 25: Twins v. Pirates, 1:05 p.m., Bradenton, Fla.

Twins (15-12): 1. Ben Revere cf, 2. Daniel Santana 2b, 3. Danny Valencia dh, 4. Chris Parmelee 1b, 5. Luke Hughes 3b, 6. Angel Morales rf, 7. Brian Dinkelman lf, 8. Brian Dozier ss, Drew Butera c. Matt Maloney lhp

Pirates (8-16): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Josh Harrison lf, 3. Jose Tabata rf, 4. Casey McGehee 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Nate McLouth cf, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Michael McKenry c, 9. James McDonald rhp

Also scheduled to pitch: Daniel McCutchen


J-Rod departs, again


BRADENTON, Fla. — Infielder Josh Rodriguez was in minor league camp with the Pirates at the start of spring training and played for them in a Grapefruit League game just a few days ago. However, he has signed a minor league contract with the Mets after being cut on Tuesday by the Pirates.

The Pirates claimed Rodriguez, 27, in December 2010 in the Rule 5 draft. They returned him to the Indians last April, then traded to get him back in June. He played for Double-A Altoona and two Triple-A clubs last year and hit a combined .258 with seven homers and 30 RBI.


Whither Morton?

Charlie Morton didn't have his best sinker against the Rays (AP photo)
Charlie Morton didn't have his best sinker against the Rays (AP photo)

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Will Charlie Morton be ready to pitch April 11 in the Pirates fifth game of the regular season? Or does Morton — who tonight allowed six runs on six hits in five innings against the Rays — need more time to recover from offseason hip surgery?

“That’s a gray area,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think he’s making progress. He was very clean and efficient early (tonight), then the one inning kind of fatigued him. We didn’t get him where we wanted to with his pitch count (75 pitches instead of 90), but he made some progress.” Hurdle said management will continue to discuss its options with Morton, who could stay in Florida for some extended spring training.

“I’m assuming they’ve made a decison and they were waiting to see what happened tonight,” Morton said.

Morton’s sinker was not sharp, and he gave up big hits on his other stuff. Luke Scott homered on a cutter. Elliot Johnson whacked a changeup for a two-run double and clubbled a curveball for another double. “I gave up a few ground ball singles on the sinker, which was fine,” Morton said. “I felt like I was out of sync. Those are the kinds of things that, as the season goes on, I’ll be able to pick up what’s going on with my body. Tonight, the adjustment wasn’t as quick as it needed to be. I was pulling a lot of sinkers, missing with my sinker. There were times I had two strikes on guys and didn’t put them away.”

»»» Evan Meek tossed one inning, with two walks and two strikeouts. It was his eighth outing this spring; five of the past six have been scoreless. “We’re pleased with the progress,” Hurdle said. “Plus, he’s carried one of the heavier workloads out of anybody in the bullpen this spring. Talking with Rod (Barajas) tonight, there was movement and velocity. It was another step forward. His mound presence is improving; there’s a lot more confidence out there now. I continue to be encouraged by the progress he’s making. It’s already way better than anything he showed last year.”

»»» Non-roster invitee Juan Cruz continues to look like a lock to snag a bullpen job. The righty tossed a 1-2-3 inning, including a swinging strikeout of Sean Rodriguez. “Juan’s pitched well this spring,” Hurdle said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s competed well, he’s gotten outs and he’s been efficient with it.”


Navarro not seriously injured


PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Yamaico Navarro said he was “feeling fine” today after taking a fastball off his left forearm yesterday against Philly. X-rays were negative and he is wearing a soft sleeve (not a cast) on his arm. The Pirates have not yet indicated when Navarro will return to action and he did not make the trip for tonight’s game against the Rays.

»»» Pedro Alvarez also did not make the trip and instead played in a minor league game this afternoon at Pirate City. The Rays are starting David Price, one of the toughest lefties in the game. Alex Presley also is not in the lineup, so Josh Harrison will make his debut in left field.

»»» Jeff Karstens threw 98 pitches yesterday and whiffed 10 batters in a minor league game — exactly what hed’ hoped to accomplish to get him up to speed for the regular season. “Now I know my next start will be nice and light,” Karstens said. “After that, it’s full-go.”

Spring game No. 24: Pirates v. Rays, 7:05 p.m., Port Charlotte, Fla.

Pirates (8-15): 1. Jose Tabata rf, 2. Josh Harrison lf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Casey McGehee 3b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Rod Barajas c, 7. Matt Hague 18, 8. Clint Barmes s, 9. Charlie Morton rhp

Also scheduled to pitch: Evan Meek, Chris Leroux and Juan Cruz

Rays (7-15-3): 1. Ben Zobrist 2b, 2. Carlos Pena 1b, 3. Evan Longoria, 4. Matt Joyce rf, 5. Luke Scott dh, 6. Jose Lobaton c, 7. Sean Rodriguez ss, 8. Elliot Johnson cf, 9. Chris Gimenez lf. David Price lhp


Navarro HBP, sent for X-rays


CLEARWATER, Fla. — A few quick updates in the wake of today’s 5-4 loss against the Phils:

»»» Infielder Yamaico Navarro was hit by a pitch on his left forearm. He left the game and was taken back to Bradenton for x-rays. No other information is available.

»»» Jeff Karstens was The Dominator this afternoon in a minor league game at Pirate City. The righty tossed 7 1/3 shutout innings, allowed three hits, walked two and racked up 10 strikeouts. “It went very well for him,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

»»» Scott Podsednik won it for the Phils with a walkoff homer off lefty Daniel Moskos. It was the first earned run Moskos has allowed in eight outings this spring.

»»» Pedro Alvarez snapped an 0-for-18 skid, which included 11 strikeouts, with a single to center off Cliff Lee. It was a good at-bat, as Alvarez fouled off three tough pitches before getting the hit. Alvarez went 1 for 4 with three strikeouts — raising his average 14 points to .135 — and made a fielding error at third base. He appears to have dramatically cut down on his toe tap, moving his foot back only a couple of inches as the pitcher begins his delivery, then picking it up and planting it.

»»» Josh Harrison, Navarro, Clint Barmes and Neil Walker have put in a lot of work every morning at 8 on the main field at McKechnie, trying to get in sync with first basemen Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee. That kind of preparation is vital, so the fellas at first know what kind of throws to expect from around the infield. “We’ve done a great job with all the early work,” Hurdle said. “We’re working on turns, pivots and throws. We’re also doing that work on the back field after b.p. They’re figuring out who’s ball does what, when his arm’s high does it drop down or now, does the ball carry or is there some sail to it.”

»»» Charlie Morton is slated to pitch five innings tomorrow against the Rays. Evan Meek (two innings), Chris Leroux and Juan Cruz (one apiece) also are scheduled to pitch.