PITTSBURGH -- This is it.

On my last day as MLB.com's Pirates beat writer, I felt it appropriate to wrap up with an Inbox. It offers one last time for me to answer some of your e-mails and one last time for me to say thank you for making my job so rewarding and so enjoyable. Many of you have regularly corresponded with me, and I have enjoyed getting to know you through those e-mails.

It's my pleasure to announce that my colleague, Tom Singer, will be moving from Phoenix to take over the beat from me. I can assure you that you will not be disappointed in Tom's coverage.

Thank you again. I will forever count my time in Pittsburgh as a special time in my life.

After seeing the details of the contract, one can only ask why the Pirates were not more aggressive in re-signing Paul Maholm? He was their hardest working and most consistent pitcher on this team over the last half-decade.
-- Tom B., Breezewood, Pa.

For others who may have missed it, Maholm recently signed a one-year, $4.75 million contract with the Cubs. It's interesting that the value of that contract is just slightly over the $4.5 million the Pirates will pay Erik Bedard next season. It is Bedard, also a lefty, who will essentially be taking Maholm's place in the rotation.

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So why did the Pirates chose Bedard over Maholm? You have to wonder if the Pirates have some concern about Maholm's long-term durability. He missed the final six weeks of the 2011 season due to a left shoulder injury that Maholm said had been bugging him for two seasons. While Maholm's shoulder was not found to have any structural issues, arm discomfort is always a concern. He has also dealt with nagging knee issues for years.

Bedard has plenty of his own durability issues, too, though. He has had several arm injuries and dealt with a sprained left knee in 2011. The Pirates did an extensive evaluation on Bedard's health before signing him, though that can't be a guarantee.

When Bedard has been healthy, he has typically been a better pitcher than Maholm -- more strikeouts, better ERA. The Pirates are banking on Bedard staying healthy, and they felt as if the potential reward was worth that risk.

If Joel Hanrahan were to get hurt, who would step in as a closer?
-- Ray Y., Annapolis, Md.

Evan Meek would be a natural option, assuming that he stays healthy and bounces back to his 2010 form. It's also worth noting that late last season, manager Clint Hurdle made a comment at one point about how Jason Grilli has the ability -- physically and mentally -- to try his hand at closing. Still, I'd expect Meek to get first crack.

Of course, the Pirates hope this never becomes an issue. Hanrahan recently agreed to a one-year deal worth $4.1 million. He will be the team's third-highest paid player next season, and is coming off a year in which he saved 40 games in 44 opportunities.

Are Major League teams limited to a fixed number of non-roster invitees to Spring Training, or is it more a function of available dollars, needs and staff evaluators of personnel?
-- Richard D., Weirton, W.V.

No, there is no official cap on the number of non-roster players a team can have participate in their big league camp. However, as you mention, there are factors that lead to limits.

Part of it is as simple as space. A few years ago, the Pirates had so many players at Spring Training that they nearly ran out of stalls in the clubhouse. The logistics can also be a challenge if there are too many players involved. While teams might want to evaluate non-roster players for a few open roster spots, clubs still have to leave enough playing time open for already-established players to get in their work.

Do you really believe Matt Hague is a good option at first base? I know he's hit pretty consistently up to this point, but does he have "it?"
-- James Q., McDonald, Pa.

Until Hague reaches a level where he can't hit, I'm in no position to say that he doesn't have "it." All he has done in his climb up the Minor Leagues is prove that he is worthy of another promotion. Hague is coming off a season in which he batted .309 with 37 doubles, 12 homers, 75 RBIs and a .372 on-base percentage for Triple-A Indianapolis. After that kind of success, the natural reaction is to bump him up a level.

If the Pirates feel that Hague can be the first baseman of the future, they have yet to indicate it. He does not seem to be seriously in the mix to start the season in Pittsburgh, despite what he has already accomplished. It doesn't mean that Hague can't eventually play himself into consideration for a Major League spot; but even with those gaudy numbers, Hague still must do more to prove he is ready for one more jump.

A lot of prospects (Brandon Wood, for example) look invincible until they reach the Majors, then they immediately implode and never bounce back. Do you take any consolation in the fact that Pedro Alvarez performed rather well in his first stint before slumping so hard in his next go-around?
-- Kirk V., Claremont, Calif.

You'll hear it preached all the time that the Draft is an inexact science. And, as you mention, there have been countless examples of can't-miss prospects taken high in the Draft who wash out before ever getting to the Majors. Or they get to the Majors, but can do little to separate themselves there.

There are also loads of examples of superstars who endure a rough start to their Major League career, only to turn things around en route to a long, successful stay in the bigs.

The Pirates aren't yet ready to label Alvarez a bust or budding superstar, but this season is set to be a critical one in the third baseman's career. Another disappointing season, and many will start to wonder if he'll ever be worthy of the hype. But with a strong showing, much of his 2011 performance will be forgotten.

There was one conversation I had regarding Alvarez with a scout late last season that did stick with me. This individual, who scouted Alvarez heavily in college, said that the tools, talent and ability that made him a consensus top pick were all still there. At the time, it was the mental battle, as much as anything, that Alvarez was losing. The fact that the skill set hasn't diminished would seem to increase Alvarez's chances for a bounce-back year. And, as you mentioned, he did, albeit briefly, prove that he's capable of hitting Major League pitching.

With Jose Tabata's year limited due to injuries last season, what kind of year do you expect him to have?
-- Ian L., Peterborough, N.H.

If Tabata can stay healthy in 2012, there is no reason why he can't be an integral part of the lineup. But it's all going to depend on health. You can say that for any player, but Tabata has been particularly bitten by injuries recently.

If he plays a full season, don't be surprised if Tabata develops a bit more power. I'm not expecting his home run total to jump significantly, but his extra-base hits could. He also has the ability to attempt more stolen bases, and he should be a tablesetter at or near the top of the lineup.