Many spots, no certainty for Bucs arms
Status of those without Minor League options may influence brass
PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates open Spring Training camp later this week, they will do so with pitching competitions on the horizon. General manager Neal Huntington has assured no starter but Paul Maholm of a spot in the rotation. A handful of spots in the bullpen will also be up for grabs.
Ideally, the decisions would be fairly unambiguous -- the pitchers who show that they're most ready during Spring Training are the ones who travel north with the team in April. However, as these competitions play out within the Pirates organization this spring, there will be an external factor looming over the decision makers.
Three relievers vying for spots in the bullpen are out of Minor League options -- Craig Hansen, Sean Burnett and Phil Dumatrait. Another, Donald Veal, is a Rule 5 Draft pick who would have to be returned to the Cubs if he isn't on the 25-man roster for the entire season.
What that means to the Pirates is that a decision not to keep any of the aforementioned arms on their Major League roster out of Spring Training is a decision that could potentially cost the team the player.
In the cases of Hansen, Burnett and Dumatrait, any would have to clear waivers in order to be sent to Triple-A to start the season.
Dumatrait presents an interesting case, considering the upside management sees in him as a potential starter. The left-hander was expected to be a candidate for the starting rotation before the rehab of his left shoulder took much longer than initially expected.
Dumatrait, who made 11 starts for the Pirates in 2008 before undergoing minor arthroscopic surgery, is out of the race for a starting spot, but he will still be considered as a fit for the bullpen.
However, if the Pirates aren't ready to commit a bullpen spot to Dumatrait at the beginning of April, whether because of his health or spring performance, the organization could get around optioning Dumatrait by letting him start the season on the disabled list.
That would give the lefty time to continue healing, if necessary. It would also give Dumatrait ample time to stretch his arm out in case the Pirates wanted to slot him into the rotation as a starter.
Burnett's resurgence in 2008 certainly gives him the upper hand at being one of the team's seven arms in the bullpen this year. That makes it much less likely that his being out of option years will come into play.
That said, though, nothing has been guaranteed to the 26-year-old left-hander. Burnett spent five months with the Pirates last season and finished with a 4.76 ERA, 34 walks and 42 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings.
Behind left-handed setup man John Grabow, Burnett is the Pirates' most experienced left-handed bullpen arm, and he limited left-handed hitters to a .171 average last year.
Hansen would seem to be the wild card of the three. When he was acquired at the Trade Deadline last year, Hansen came with the power arm label and with management's belief that he could be a potential closer down the road. Yet Hansen's control left much to be desired.
In his first nine appearances after the trade, Hansen allowed nine earned runs and walked 12 batters in 10 innings. He struck out only three and was demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Aug. 27 before returning as a September callup.
Hansen, a former first-round Draft pick, then walked eight, struck out four and allowed four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings with the Pirates during the season's final month.
With closer Matt Capps and setup men Tyler Yates and Grabow locks for the 'pen, that leaves four open spots. As mentioned, Burnett is favored to take one of those open four. The club will also need a long reliever, likely Dumatrait or one of the starting candidates who doesn't make the rotation.
That would leave two open spots, and Hansen is one of about 10 other pitchers with a legitimate chance at being one of those final arms.
Sure, Hansen will get a closer look because the Pirates don't want to lose one of the players they considered a good return in last season's trades. But at the same time, Huntington has said there is a responsibility for him to put the best players on the team, not to be heavily influenced by external factors.
Veal's situation as a Rule 5 Draft pick is quite straightforward. And as the Pirates found last season with reliever Evan Meek, it's impossible to hide someone on the roster all season if he's not actually big league-ready.
For Veal to be considered for the Pirates bullpen, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is going to have to work some quick magic on Veal's control issues. Like Hansen, the power arm is there with Veal. Up to this point, though, Veal has not been able to find the control necessary for success in the high Minor Leagues or the Majors.
While the Pirates have these potential out-of-options dilemmas to deal with in competition for those bullpen spots, that won't be the case when it comes to the competition for spots in the starting rotation.
All of the pitchers fighting for rotation spots have at least one option year remaining, so the Pirates could send any of them to Triple-A to start the season. Jeff Karstens, Tom Gorzelanny and Jimmy Barthmaier all have one option year left, while Ross Ohlendorf has two remaining. Zach Duke has three option years left.
As a result, Huntington and manager John Russell won't have their hands tied when it comes to making rotation decisions.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.