Welker not household name, but there's hope

28 days until opening day

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- In spring training, major league players at Pirates camp get names on the back of their jerseys. The minor leaguers are just numbers.

This time last year, pitcher Duke Welker was one the nameless masses clopping their cleats around Pirate City, but he spent the past year making a name for himself in the Pirates organization.

Welker was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster this offseason, having appeared in eight games above Class A in a five-year minor league career. But, at 6 feet 7 with a 96 mph fastball, Welker showed enough progress that the Pirates' front office wanted to protect him from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster.

"He was an aggressive protect because we didn't want to lose that type of arm," general manager Neal Huntington said.

As a 40-man roster member, Welker is part of the Pirates' major league camp for the first time.

Welker, 26, was the Pirates second-round pick in the 2007 draft -- the third time Welker had been drafted. But it wasn't until last season with the high-A Bradenton Marauders that Welker started to turn his skills into consistent success.

In 36 appearances, he recorded a 2.25 ERA and earned a promotion to Class AA Altoona. A couple months later, he took a call from assistant general manager Kyle Stark, telling him he had been added to the 40-man roster.

"It's kind of like when I was drafted a little bit," Welker said.

"You kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. You just go, 'All right, somebody recognized what I feel like I've been working toward.' "

Even at 26, Huntington said, there is a lot of untapped potential in Welker. The key is harnessing his skills and honing his talent.

"If he can continue to take those steps forward, it doesn't matter when you get there," Huntington said. "Especially with the stuff that he has, in that position, relievers tend to come later than most of the other positions. He's still got a lot of bullets left in that arm."

But being in the major league camp could go a long way to help Welker realize those goals, pitching coach Ray Searage said.

"It's about how he interacts and what kind of information that he can absorb from the guys who have played in this game for quite some time," Searage said. "Asking questions and watching what they do and see how they go about their business -- see how they warm up, see how they play catch, see how they conduct themselves in drills, see how they treat fans.

"It's a part of the maturity process. It's not so much about mechanics and X's and O's. Those are important, no doubt about it, but it's a variety of things that he has to go through in order to be the complete pitcher."

Those pesky Blue Jays

The Pirates lost to the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-6, Wednesday afternoon at McKechnie Field.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez hit his first home run of the spring, sending a 3-2 fastball from Kyle Drabek -- son of former Pirates pitcher Doug Drabek -- over the left-field wall in the second inning.

"Whenever you can square up a couple balls in the game, it's a good thing," said Alvarez, who finished 2 for 3. "I've just got to keep it going -- keep the consistency and the good at-bats. The results will take care of themselves."

Starter Jeff Karstens was strong in three scoreless innings on the mound, striking out one and allowing two hits, but Brad Lincoln struggled, allowing four earned runs on six hits in one-plus innings.

The Pirates are 2-3 in Grapefruit League play, with all three losses coming to the Blue Jays.

Walker to rest 2-3 days

Second baseman Neil Walker was scratched from the lineup Wednesday because of lower-back tightness. He is listed as day to day but will not resume activities for two to three days as a precaution.

Walker indicated he was OK, but said he wanted to make sure he did not tax his body too much this early in the season. A lower-back issue kept him out of a couple of games last season.

Walker said he first felt discomfort in the Pirates 7-4 victory Tuesday against the New York Yankees.

"It was a little tight during the game, and it got worse after," Walker said.

Josh Harrison started in Walker's place.

Morton in first game set-up

Pitcher Charlie Morton, who had offseason surgery to repair a torn hip labrum, made his first appearance in a game situation Wednesday in an intrasquad scrimmage.

He threw 29 pitches -- 17 strikes -- in 11/3 inning before being removed for pitch-count reasons. He allowed one run on three hits with a walk and a strikeout.

From a health point, Morton said he felt fine. There have not been any limitations on his workout or throwing routines. The biggest challenge this offseason was to build up his arm strength after starting his offseason conditioning a month behind schedule.

"It's harder because I feel like everything is happening a lot quicker," Morton said. "I started playing catch in December. I feel like every throw that I make is more crucial."

He was generally disappointed with his outing, but he was not discouraged.

"I'm hoping that I'll just keep progressing," he said.

Morton likely will pitch in an exhibition next week and start working on a five-day schedule.

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published March 8, 2012 5:00 AM


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