By John Perrotto
Well, spring training got off to a rip-roaring start Thursday when the Pirates announced that one of their key relief pitchers would be unable to throw for between 2-4 weeks just moments before the pitchers and catchers held their first workout at Pirate City in Bradenton.
Right-hander Joel Hanrahan, who figured to be one of the Pirates’ key set-up relievers after a fine finish to last season, was diagnosed with a flexor-pronator strain in his right elbow, a condition referred to in layman’s terms as “golfer’s elbow.”
Hanrahan almost certainly will have to begin the season on the disabled list but the big question is whether he will have to eventually succumb to Tommy John reconstruction surgery on his elbow. More often than not, it seems, these kind of so-called mild injuries lead to major surgery.
Hanrahan will visit the world’s leading elbow authority, orthopedist James Andrews, next Thursday in Pensacola, Fla., and Pirates right-handed reliever Jose Ascanio will tag along. Ascanio will be out until at least midseason after having shoulder surgery last October.
Hanrahan was tentatively slotted as the Pirates’ seventh-inning pitcher, ideally serving as the bridge from the starters to the late-inning tandem of closer Octavio Dotel and set-up man Brendan Donnelly, two veterans signed as free agents in the offseason.
The Pirates are hoping Dotel will be an upgrade over Matt Capps. However, it is telling that the Pirates were the only team to pursue Dotel as a closer on the open market and Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen began shying away from using him in important late-inning situations as last season wore on.
While Dotel struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings in 2009, scouts say he lost confidence in his fastball and increasingly tried to trick hitters with his cutter.
Donnelly struck out 25 batters in 25 1/3 innings for Florida last season but spent time on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. At 38 and with a history of injuries that includes a blown-out elbow, it is hard to envision going the entire season without landing on the DL.
Evan Meek is the only other reliever assured of being on the opening-day roster and he likely will slide into the seventh-inning role that was supposed to be Hanrahan’s. Meek definitely has upside as his 42 strikeouts in 42 innings last year indicate along with his .209 batting average allowed.
However, he also missed the last two months of the season with a strained muscle in his side and issued 29 walks.
D.J. Carrasco has taken a circuitous route back to the Pirates’ organization after being lost to Kansas City in the Rule 5 Draft at the 2002 winter meetings.
Signed to a minor-league contract as a free agent last month, he has a good chance to win a job since he is capable of pitching multiple innings.
Chris Jakubauskas, claimed off waivers from Seattle in the offseason, also stands a decent chance of making the club. His greatest asset is versatility as he can pitch long and middle relief while also providing spot starts.
Anthony Claggett made a last-weekend cameo with the Pirates last season after being claimed off waivers from the New York Yankees.
While it’s hard to judge a guy off one inning, the reports on Claggett when he was in the Yankees’ organization were that he had no put-away pitch and needed to get by with finesse, not something you ideally want to see in a reliever.
Three right-handers who have a puncher’s chance of making the club are Vinny Chulk, Jeremy Powell and Jeff Sues.
Chulk has major-league experience and some spells of success with Toronto, San Francisco and Cleveland; Powell had a solid season as a swingman at Class AAA Indianapolis after pitching in Japan the previous seven years; and Sues will try to regain some of the zip he lost on his fastball last season after being the Pirates’ minor-league pitcher of the year in 2009.
Javier Lopez figures to be the primary left-handed reliever after being signed as a free agent. He was a very effective set-up man for Boston in 2008 but struggled early last season and wound up spending the summer at Class AAA Pawtucket.
Manager John Russell has never been wedded to the notion that he needs multiple lefties in his bullpen.
However, if the Pirates do decide to take a second left-hander or Lopez proves to be a spring bust then journeyman Jack Taschner could enter the discussion.