Pirates minicamp: Bullpen has many holes, few answers

GM says Grabow, Marte will share late-inning duties

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates, it is safe to say, feel fairly sound about most positions. They like the starters, they have a firm idea of their everyday eight, they can pretty much project a bench and ...

Oh, wait. The bullpen.

Never mind.

There are closer Matt Capps, left-handers John Grabow and Damaso Marte and, as the roster currently stands, a mind-bending four vacancies. There are few experienced pitchers competing for those vacancies, and no clear choice to fill the critical late-inning roles performed by departed Salomon Torres and Shawn Chacon.

General manager Neal Huntington has tried to address the need, having contacted several free-agent right-handers -- including a close loss in the bidding when Luis Vizcaino signed with the Colorado Rockies for two years and $7.5 million -- but nothing is pending.

So, how will this develop?

No one can know for sure with so many uncertainties, but these were four points Huntington laid out yesterday on the final day of the Pirates' minicamp:

• Grabow and Marte will share late-inning duties. Grabow has done some of that in the past and is equally effective against batters from both sides. But Marte has been a one-out specialist against left-handed batters -- he was excellent in that role in 2007 -- so going a full inning will represent an adjustment.

• There are no firm favorites for the vacancies, but Franquelis Osoria has a better chance than most. His sinker, which some teammates call one of the best in the National League, would be manager John Russell's best weapon when needing a double play. "He's a strike-thrower, too," Huntington said.

• Osoria is one of four pitchers in this mix who are out of options. The others are Jonah Bayliss, Sean Burnett and Phil Dumatrait. Evan Meek, the Pirates' Rule 5 draft pick last month, also would be lost if he does not make the 25-man roster out of spring training. But Huntington stressed, "We're going to take the best guys."

Others known to be participating in the major-league portion of spring training are Juan Perez, Elmer Dessens, John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, Masumi Kuwata, Ty Taubenheim, Marino Salas, T.J. Beam and Jesse Chavez.

A lot of pitchers to fill a lot of holes.

Which undoubtedly will present the greatest evaluation challenge to the Pirates' new management this spring.

"Yes, it is going to be a challenge, but I think it's also going to be intriguing and fun," pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. "We have a lot of interesting arms, some power arms that Neal has added, some different kinds of pitchers. It's a matter of putting together the best group."

That variety of pitchers was a focal point of offseason discussions between Huntington and Russell.

"We want him to be able to mix and match, put pitcher's strengths and hitter's weaknesses as much as possible through the sixth and seventh innings," Huntington said. "And Grabow or Marte come on for the eighth."

The one certainty of a smorgasbord spring scenario such as this, of course, is that many more pitchers than usual are confident they have a shot.

Take Bayliss, coming off a disappointing 2007 in which he posted an 8.36 ERA before being demoted to Class AAA Indianapolis and posting a 7.06 ERA there.

"I feel like I'm going to make the team, and anything else would be a disappointment," Bayliss said. "I know what I can do. I've shown flashes of it. But I'm coming off a year that, personally, was very embarrassing for me. And I'm here to make sure that's not going to happen again."

Meek, the power-armed right-hander who solved a career of control problems with a fine summer in Class AA last season, said he is seeking a continuation.

"Some pitchers, things just click," Meek said. "No one knows why or when it's going to happen, but I feel like it did happen to me. And I feel like I'm going to carry that into this spring and work hard to make it. ... I know this: It's a heck of an opportunity."

NOTES -- Minicamp concluded quietly with some conditioning drills. Pitchers and catchers return for spring training Feb. 14. ... The new Pirate City headquarters building will be open Feb. 1. The last piece of the project, the fifth field, will not be done until after spring training. ... Huntington sounded pleased with minicamp: "There was a lot we got done in terms of planning and structure, but it was most satisfying to see this new staff working with our players the way they did. A very valuable experience."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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