Spring Training Battles: Starting Rotation

Last year the downfall of the Pirates was the starting rotation, which led the Pirates to the worst ERA in the NL, and the 28th ranked ERA in the majors. The starting pitchers racked up a 33-67 record, with a 5.36 ERA in their 162 starts.

Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny were the two biggest disappointments. I’d say Matt Morris was a big disappointment, but I don’t think anyone was expecting much from him, despite the $10 M salary. Snell and Gorzelanny were supposed to be the leaders of the 2008 staff, and instead posted ERAs of 5.42 and 6.66 respectively.

The pitching woes were a focus point in the Xavier Nady trade, as the Pirates shipped off Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees for Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, and Jeff Karstens, plus top prospect Jose Tabata. The Pirates also acquired former first round pick Bryan Morris in the Jason Bay trade, a move with an eye toward future rotations.

McCutchen was recently sent to the minor league camp, but Ohlendorf and Karstens are left battling for a spot in the rotation. The only player who the Pirates will officially say is a lock would be last year’s lone bright spot, Paul Maholm. Aside from Maholm, the Pirates have Snell, Gorzelanny, Zach Duke, Karstens, Ohlendorf, and Virgil Vasquez fighting for the final four spots.

Snell and Duke are pretty much locks due to their salaries. Combined, the two players will make $5.2 M this season. The Pirates also need to make a decision on these two players. Duke is in his first year of arbitration, which means he will likely be due a raise at the end of the year. The Pirates will need to decide whether or not to tender him an offer. Snell is in the second year of a three year contract, making $4.25 M next season, with two option years following that.

I have more faith in Snell to rebound than Gorzelanny. A look at the numbers last year shows us that Snell finished with a 5.42 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP. Gorzelanny finished with a 6.66 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP. On the surface, both are horrible lines. However, as we dig deeper, we find that Snell was actually the victim of some bad luck.

Gorzelanny posted a 5.72 K/9 ratio, a 0.96 K/BB ratio, a 1.71 HR/9 ratio, and a .287 BABIP. The league average for pitchers for BABIP is around .300-.305, so despite the horrible numbers, Gorzelanny was actually lucky. In his 2007 season, Gorzelanny posted a 6.02 K/9, 1.99 K/BB, 0.80 HR/9, and a .294 BABIP. In short, the walks and homers were way up, and Gorzelanny was lucky that more balls didn’t fall in to play.

As for Snell, in 2008 he posted a 7.39 K/9, 1.52 K/BB, 0.99 HR/9, and a .338 BABIP. The strikeouts and homers are pretty decent, and the walks were up, but the BABIP is extremely unlucky. In 2006/2007, Snell posted a 7.90 K/9, 2.44 K/BB, 1.16 HR/9, and a .299 BABIP. That led to a 23-23 record with a 4.23 ERA. Part of Snell’s problem was due to the walks, but the BABIP is extremely unlucky, which means Snell is pretty much guaranteed for a big rebound.

The final two rotation spots are down to a battle between Gorzelanny, Ohlendorf, Karstens, and Vasquez. Ohlendorf is currently running away with one of the spots due to his strong Spring. In 9.1 innings, Ohlendorf has struck out seven, walked none, and allowed one run on six hits.

Gorzelanny and Karstens have the inside track over Vasquez, but both players could be blowing their opportunity. Gorzelanny has four strikeouts and five walks in seven innings, with a 7.00 ERA, while Karstens has three strikeouts and one walk in 9.2 innings, but five earned runs for a 4.66 ERA. Meanwhile, Vasquez has struck out three and walked two in five innings, with two earned runs.

All three players have options remaining, which means it’s anyone’s game. If I had to put my money on one of them making the team, it would be Karstens. Karstens posted a 4.03 ERA last year in 51.1 innings after the Nady trade. I don’t think those numbers are legit, as he posted a lucky .272 BABIP.

Karstens is a pitcher in the Zach Duke mold. He won’t overpower anyone, and he has trouble putting up consistent starts. The advantage he has is the low walk rates. Karstens posted a 2.28 BB/9 with the Pirates last year, and has just one walk in Spring Training this year. That could be enough to win the final spot over Gorzelanny and Vasquez.

Of course, I’m still of the opinion that the Pirates should make a trade for Jeff Niemann of the Tampa Bay Rays to fill that final rotation spot.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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