Spring training: Karstens makes rotation

Eight cuts, additions of Monroe, Cruz part of Pirates' busy day

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- One bullpen spot left.

That was the pivotal fallout from the Pirates' most meaningful flurry of roster moves of the spring yesterday, one in which they:

• Demoted eight players -- pitchers Virgil Vasquez, Denny Bautista, Jason Davis and Chris Bootcheck; infielders Andy Phillips and Garrett Jones; outfielder Jeff Salazar; and catcher Erik Kratz -- to minor league camp. All will be assigned to Class AAA Indianapolis.

• Chose Jeff Karstens over Vasquez to fill out the starting rotation.

• Told outfielder Craig Monroe and utilityman Luis Cruz they made the team.

• Designated for assignment reliever Romulo Sanchez to clear space on the 40-man roster for Monroe.

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That left 27 players in camp, two above the active limit, but one of those was injured pitcher Phil Dumatrait, who will be placed on the 15-day disabled list when the season starts Monday.

And, with general manager Neal Huntington reiterating that only Matt Capps, John Grabow and Tyler Yates are locks for the bullpen, that left five relievers -- Sean Burnett, Craig Hansen, Evan Meek, Jesse Chavez and Rule 5 draft pick Donnie Veal -- for four openings.

"Those jobs are there to be taken," Huntington said.

The most likely scenario is that the decision will come down to Meek's health. He last pitched March 20, after which a sore shoulder shut him down for a week. He was set to return Monday, but a double-whammy of the stomach flu and bronchitis scratched that.

He had been one of the team's best this spring, with a 3.48 ERA, three saves, nine strikeouts and six walks in 10 1/3 innings.

"We want to give him another chance to see where he is physically, command- and stuff-wise," Huntington said.

Meek threw a light side session yesterday and could pitch today against the Cincinnati Reds in Sarasota.

If Meek is fine, Chavez would appear most likely to be demoted. Each has options remaining. Burnett and Hansen are out of options, and Veal would have to be offered back to the Chicago Cubs if he does not make the team.

For Karstens, despite the good news that he had achieved his spring goal, there hardly was a celebratory feel. He had been shelled by the Minnesota Twins the previous day, raising his ERA to 6.17, and he clearly was chosen because no better option could be found internally or externally.

"We talked about some things that I needed to work on," Karstens said. "But it's my job, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm happy, but I know I have stuff to work on."

"We've talked repeatedly about not trying to get too high or too low on spring training performances," Huntington said of Karstens. "Jeff showed signs that he's working on some delivery adjustments and that he can be an everyday pitcher. He did a nice job for us last year."

Karstens was 2-6 with a 4.03 ERA after being acquired in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade last July.

Vasquez, who had a 7.62 ERA and only five major league appearances at age 26 but opened evaluators' eyes with good stuff, was considered for long relief, too. But management decided, after some back and forth, to have him start for Indianapolis and be available in that role

"I'm not completely happy with the results," Vasquez said of his spring. "But I'm glad they liked what they saw, enough to give me this chance."

Of the fifth-starter duel that turned out to be anything but, manager John Russell said, "I wouldn't say we're disappointed. There were times when Jeff threw pretty well, and he had some quality starts for us last year."

Monroe has batted .281 with six home runs and 13 RBIs, with half of those home runs -- and the last of them -- coming with that prodigious, three-blast display March 12 against the Minnesota Twins.

Cruz batted .190 with three RBIs, but manager John Russell likes his versatility -- he can play every position except catcher -- and that greatly helped him make an opening-day roster for the first time.

His grandmother died Tuesday in Venezuela, and the rush of emotions was visible.

"I'm not sure how to feel right now," Cruz said. "But I know she would be very happy for me."

The Pirates are known to have explored outside options for a starting pitcher, infielder and outfielder -- the Detroit Free Press yesterday reported their interest in Tigers outfielder Brent Clevlin -- but those sounded dead yesterday.

"There's nothing imminent," Huntington said. "Some of the people we've talked to have chosen other opportunities. Some are looking for more than we are willing to give, and that's in trades and free agency. Nor do we feel like we have to do anything to add. We like what we have. Can we be better? We can always be better."

Regardless of who wins the final bullpen job, the Pirates' opening-day payroll -- meaning the simple addition of all 25 full-year salaries -- will be $50,984,000. The team also must pay $1,397,500 in previous buyouts, bonuses and other obligations that Major League Baseball counts toward payroll.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. First Published April 2, 2009 4:00 AM


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