Pedro Alvarez and Pirates' starting rotation would seem to be most critical to 2012

Questions to answer in Bradenton

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Neil Walker had a bird's-eye view.

Walker played in 159 games last year, meaning he participated in the middling early portion of the season, the improvement in June, the division-leading play in July, the 10-game losing streak that began in August and the struggle to the finish line in September.

He saw what they had and what they gained during the offseason and said the team would play better in 2012.

"I think that with some of the additions we made and the experience level of some of the guys coming back ... the health of the team is the most important thing, next to pitching," Walker said. "We didn't have guys that had major issues like elbows or shoulders or knees. I think that bodes well for us going into this year."

The Pirates lost starters because of injuries for large portions of 2011, when they finished 72-90, a 15-win improvement during Clint Hurdle's first season. During the offseason, they lost Derrek Lee to free agency and parted with two starting pitchers, two catchers and a shortstop, then replaced them with free agents. They enter 2012 with new players up the middle and face a division that experienced an offseason overhaul.

Can they compete? None of their offseason moves brought an "impact" player, though they appear to have upgraded their rotation with a trade for New York Yankees starter A.J. Burnett Friday. They likely will open the season with one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Like all teams at the beginning of spring training, they face questions. Inside, we detail five of the most prominent as camp opens today for pitchers and catchers.

1. Will the Pirates win more than 72 games?

To do so, they'll need offense. The Pirates' 3.77 runs per game ranked 14th in the National League.


"We're not going to rely on the two-run, three-run home run," Neil Walker said. "When you focus on defense and you focus on pitching -- as you saw firsthand for the first four months [of 2011], our pitching was one of the best in the league.

"We're still trying to find our identity as an offensive squad."

That offense could improve with an emphasis on small ball and aggressiveness on the basepaths, something Clint Hurdle has stressed he wants to improve. Alex Presley, who often batted leadoff in 2011, and Andrew McCutchen, one of the fastest players in the majors, will play key roles in that process.

2. Will third baseman Pedro Alvarez hit?

That's the $6.335 million question. He displayed his ability at the major league level near the end of 2010, his rookie season, when he hit .311 in September and finished with 16 home runs.

Last season, he hit .191, spent time on the disabled list because of a strained quadriceps, was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis and shared playing time with Josh Harrison in September.

Alvarez, the second overall draft pick in 2008, spent the offseason in Newport Beach, Calif., where his agent, Scott Boras, owns a workout facility. He focused on flexibility and agility rather than strength or reps in the batting cage and appeared in good shape at PirateFest.

"We've been really encouraged by what Pedro's doing this offseason," assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. "Both in terms of how he looks, how he feels, the confidence. He's a part of this and can contribute significantly to what we're doing. I think the reports are that he's in a good place mentally and physically."

Alvarez will play third, but the right-handed Casey McGehee will challenge him for playing time and could get more at-bats against left-handed pitching.

3. Unlike 2011, will the free agents perform?

The veterans signed before last season, Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay, failed to produce as the Pirates hoped. Diaz hit well against left-handers in a platoon role but provided little power and had a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Overbay hit .227 as a Pirate.

The new additions -- shortstop Clint Barmes, catcher Rod Barajas, outfielder Nate McLouth and starter Erik Bedard -- will replace Ronny Cedeno, Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf, all of whom the Pirates cut ties with.

Barmes and Barajas will strengthen the defense up the middle, and Barajas comes with good reviews from former teammates regarding his work with the pitching staff. Both also add power to the lineup but had low on-base percentages in recent years. McLouth struggled, partly due to injury, for the past two seasons in Atlanta after a solid early career with the Pirates. Bedard has displayed top-level stuff in the past and adds the ability to strike batters out, but injuries have interrupted his career.

4. Will the pitching staff stay strong for a whole season?

The staff's rise and fall last season had the strongest correlation to the Pirates' successes and failures. In the first half of the season, Charlie Morton baffled batters with his new arm slot, Jeff Karstens elevated himself to the top of the National League in June and Kevin Correia notched win after win. Come the second half, Morton and Karstens skipped starts due to fatigue and Correia ended the season on the disabled list.

"The arms weren't really getting sore, they were losing their legs, which caused the arms to do more work," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "What you have to keep in mind, the intensity level for four months was at its highest that any of them have ever experienced. ... What we'd like to do now is try to push that and all the work that they did last year for those four months, we'd like to make sure that we can do that for six months."

5. Will Charlie Morton be ready for opening day?

Morton had surgery in October to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, an issue that affected him for several months prior.

"I'm hoping to be ready by opening day," Morton said. "My biggest concern is building up arm strength.

"It limits you from when you can start throwing and how far you can throw. I'm more worried about my arm at this point than my hip."

Morton said he was throwing long toss from 175 feet after extensive rehabilitation. He performed single-leg stability exercises to strengthen the hip, then added plyometrics and running, some of it on an anti-gravity treadmill, to his program.

Morton appears headed for a return by April, but the Pirates may keep him in extended spring training for the first few weeks of the season to make sure he has fully recovered.

"One thing we have to make sure that Charlie realizes is, he is a little bit behind his long toss program in order for him to build up that arm strength," Searage said. "All signs right now for him is, he is blowing up the schedule that we set up for him."

Throughout the next six weeks of spring training, the answers to those questions will begin to take form.

Although many of the players, including Morton, Correia, Alvarez, Walker and Jose Tabata, reported to camp early, the work toward finding them begins today.

Bill Brink: and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published February 19, 2012 5:00 AM


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