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02/15/09 2:54 PM EST

Karstens back on track after discomfort

Bucs hurler doesn't expect January shutdown to have any effect

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Karstens was among the nine pitchers to throw side sessions Sunday, which was an encouraging sign for the right-hander -- who was temporarily shut down in January after experiencing some discomfort in his right elbow.

In fact, Karstens is just minimally behind schedule, and the minor setback is not expected to have any sort of effect on his ability to compete for a spot in the rotation.

"I'll be just fine," Karstens said. "Everything is feeling great."

After the discomfort surfaced during the mid-January mini-camp, Karstens returned and threw his first bullpen session on Feb. 6. He's thrown three more since then, including the 25-pitch session Sunday. Karstens said he has not felt any discomfort since returning to the mound.

"He's going to be fine," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington confirmed. "At this point in time, our medical staff sees no problem. They're just holding him back a little bit. He'll be just a half-step behind."

Most of the other pitchers have thrown about two more side sessions than Karstens up to this point, and most were throwing 35 pitches in their first side sessions of Spring Training.

Because of the extra week of Spring Training -- a change instituted this spring due to the World Baseball Classic in March -- Karstens will have no problem stretching himself out in Grapefruit League games next month. And doing so will be key for the right-hander, who is in competition for the final handful of rotation spots.

After coming over from the Yankees in the July trade that shipped Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte out of Pittsburgh, Karstens spent the remainder of the 2008 season in the Pirates' rotation. In nine starts, Karstens went 2-6 with a 4.03 ERA. One of those two wins included a game in Arizona, during which the righty came within four outs of pitching the first perfect game in the organization's storied history.

Still, the 26-year-old starter is by no means guaranteed a rotation spot heading into the 2009 season. Paul Maholm has one spot locked up. And Saturday, Huntington said Ian Snell and Zach Duke have a leg up for the next two spots because of the encouraging signs they showed late last season and the way they showed up at camp. Obviously, though, the spots still have to be earned over the next six weeks.

That would leave Karstens, Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Ohlendorf competing for the final two rotation holes. Jimmy Barthmaier and Daniel McCutchen are also in the mix, though at this point both would seem long shots to make the rotation out of camp.

"We have some young arms that we are excited about," Huntington said. "If they can take some steps forward, there are reasons to feel good about them. There's some depth."

For Karstens, this will be the third consecutive year that he has arrived at Spring Training in competition to make the Opening Day 25-man roster. The previous two, however, ended with trips to the disabled list.

Karstens was in line to crack the Yankees' starting rotation in 2007 until right elbow tendinitis flared up at the end of spring and cost him a spot. Last year, Karstens was in tight competition to be the team's long reliever until he strained his right groin while pitching in a Grapefruit League game against the Pirates during the final week of Spring Training.

That meant for the second consecutive season, Karstens would begin the year on the DL.

"It's something I try not to think about and just try to move forward," Karstens said, before jokingly adding, "And [I] knock on wood as much as I can."

Having been through two injury-filled springs, though, did give Karstens enough sense to alert the Pirates last month when that minor elbow discomfort bothered him. And by doing so, he is now poised to see if his third attempt at making a Major League club for Opening Day can, in fact, be a charm.

"If anything, in the past I would have tried to have thrown through what I was going through with my elbow," Karstens said. "But this year, I figured, 'Why chance it?' I needed to get healthy."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.