Pirates' Burnett faces surgery today
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates added starting pitchers in the offseason to strengthen the rotation and eliminate the possibility of another second-half decline, but also to protect against injury.
Their marquee acquisition fell victim to the very event from which they sought insurance.
Starter A.J. Burnett was diagnosed with an orbital fracture near his right eye Thursday and will have surgery today in Pittsburgh, the team announced.
Burnett fouled a ball off his bat and into his face during a bunting tournament Wednesday morning. The ball, which came at moderate speed from a pitching machine, ricocheted off the right eye socket. He bent over after he was struck and assistant athletic trainer Ben Potenziano assisted him, stemming the bleeding with a towel. Burnett walked off the field under his own power as Potenziano continued to hold the towel to his face.
The initial inspection indicated the possibility of a fracture, general manager Neal Huntington said, so the team decided to send Burnett to Pittsburgh for further evaluation Thursday.
No information was given regarding the severity of the fracture, the nature of the surgery or the estimated recovery time.
The Pirates acquired the 35-year-old right-hander from the New York Yankees for two minor leaguers at the start of spring training. The Pirates will pay $5 million of Burnett's $16.5 million annual salary in 2012, $8 million in '13.
They have options to take Burnett's spot in the rotation if he misses regular-season starts. Erik Bedard, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens likely would comprise the rotation, with Brad Lincoln a possibility.
Burnett made at least 32 starts in each of the past four seasons and brought durability that the Pirates rotation lacked in 2011. He also pitched at least 186 innings in each of the past four seasons, which would have helped relieve pressure on a bullpen that pitched more relief innings than all but one team in the majors last season.
Burnett and Bedard, a free-agent acquisition, were expected to fill the first two spots in the rotation, which would have created competition for the final three. Should Burnett miss significant time, that competition might disappear.
Morton remains a few days behind the rest of the starters in his throwing progression. He had surgery in October to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, but has progressed without setbacks and pitched his first batting practice session Wednesday without issue.
Lincoln has a minor league option remaining, so, if Bedard, McDonald, Correia, Karstens and Morton form the rotation, Lincoln could start the season in Class AAA Indianapolis and make spot starts in the majors, if necessary.
Chris Leroux is out of options, but he's not worried about that right now.
"Obviously there's a lot of competition in the bullpen, but I feel like I should be in that bullpen," he said.
"Whether or not I perform during spring training and they choose me to be in that bullpen is another story."
Leroux had a 2.88 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 25 innings with the Pirates in 2011.
He played winter ball to work on his changeup and returned with more confidence in the pitch.
"Before I got there, I couldn't really throw a first-pitch changeup for a strike," he said. "Maybe I could, but I didn't do it as often as I should have. As my winter ball time came to a close, I noticed I was doing it more and more often for strikes. First pitch, whenever I felt like it. Behind-in-the-count changeups, which is big in the big leagues. If you can throw a behind-in-the-count changeup, you're going to get a lot of ground balls. It really progressed."
Playing for a familiar manager allowed him to proceed with his work uninterrupted. Leroux played for Dean Treanor, who manages Class AAA Indianapolis.
"He let the guys that he knew do what they've been doing during the season," Leroux said. "He didn't really try to over-coach or anything like that. That was good."
• Left-hander Daniel Moskos was scratched from a scheduled appearance in the intrasquad scrimmage today and will pitch Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays at McKechnie Field. He likely will take Burnett's spot; Burnett was scheduled to throw a side session Thursday, putting him on schedule to pitch Sunday.
First Published March 2, 2012 12:00 am