The Pittsburgh Pirates face plenty of question marks entering the 2013 season, not the least of which will be a pitching staff that should have more than one vacancy up for grabs.
As expected, the Pirates did not re-sign righthander Kevin Correia, who went the free-agent route and has latched on with the Minnesota Twins.
Jeff Karstens, another righthander who had been a big part of the Bucs' plans as recently as last season, was designated for assignment. Karstens missed huge chunks of the 2012 season with various injuries, and the Pirates apparently felt it was time to part ways with him.
Charlie Morton, another injury-plagued righthander, is also a question mark. He's expected to miss at least the first two months of the 2013 season after undergoing elbow surgery and missing most of last season.
The Bucs do bring back veteran righty A.J. Burnett, whose 16 victories last season were the most by a Pirates' pitcher since Todd Ritchie won 15 in 1999. Also in the fold will be veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriquez, who pitched well late last season after a handful of rough initial outings.
Youngsters Jeff Locke, a lefty, and righty Kyle McPherson, both got some work in as starters last season, but they're both still unproven.
Bob Walk was a solid righthanded pitcher who helped the Pirates win three consecutive division championships in 1990-92, when they were a member of the National League's East Division. Walk is now with the Bucs as a broadcast analyst, and he was part of the Pirates Winter Caravan that visited Altoona recently.
Walk knows all too well the importance of pitching - especially starting pitching.
"Just about every team in baseball is going to be [only] as good as its starting rotation,'' Walk said. "And that starting rotation needs to stay healthy and strong. Last year, I think that there were some health issues that ended up getting the best of us.''
And then there was righthander James McDonald, who proved to be one of the game's most enigmatic pitchers.
McDonald was a strong candidate for an all-star berth in July, winning nine games before the break. He floundered in the second half of the season, though, and wound up in the bullpen.
"As far as James was concerned, I wish I knew why he kind of fell off the cliff,'' Walk said. "I would have told him, 'This is what I see. I think this is the problem. Obviously, I don't have an answer. Nobody has an answer for last year.'''
The fact that McDonald maintained his velocity but lost his sense of direction as the season wore on only compounded the puzzle.
"We were looking at his average velocity in April and May and compared those numbers to July and August,'' Walk said. "To be honest with you, there really wasn't much difference. It wasn't his stuff. For whatever reason, there was a problem with his command, and his control of his pitches.''
McDonald must now face a mental hurdle of sorts in 2013. The Pirates will need for him to either step up again, or for somebody else to fill that void.
"It was really tough on him,'' Walk said of McDonald's second-half struggle in 2012. "That was one of the reasons we didn't play very well [in August and September.] We lost one of our best starters.''
Walker feeling well
Reports are that another key player, second baseman Neil Walker, has recovered well from a back problem that caused him to miss most of the last six weeks of the 2012 season.
Walker, a Pittsburgh native, is among the team's top RBI producers, and has developed into one of the game's best defensive second basemen.
Pirates open with Cubs
The Pirates will visit Peoples Natural Gas Field on Saturday, March 30 - the day before Easter - for a 2 p.m. exhibition game with the Curve. Two days later, the Bucs open the 2013 regular season by hosting the Chicago Cubs on Monday afternoon, April 1 at 1:35 p.m. at PNC Park.
Interleague opponents on next season's schedule are the Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners at home, and the Mariners, Tigers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Texas Rangers on the road.