Do the Pirates need an ace?

Tyler Kepner of the New York Times had an article looking at the Pittsburgh Pirates, more specifically, the pitching heading in to the 2010 season.  The article included the following quote from Neal Huntington:

“On paper, we do like our rotation, with Brad Lincoln coming up behind them,” said General Manager Neal Huntington. “You look at Charlie Morton, and he had one start in Chicago where he gave up 10 runs in one inning. Agents love to play that game and I hate it – ‘take away one game’ – but in Charlie’s case, it really is true. Take out that game, and he had a 3.66 E.R.A. in half a season. We’ll take that.”

In the best-case scenario, Huntington said, the Pirates will have five starters who are dependable enough to keep them in games consistently. If the Pirates have that foundation, it is at least safe to say they will not lose 99 games again.

“When you have five guys who give you a chance to win every day, that’s the Minnesota Twins model,” Huntington said. “They don’t have that dominant starting pitcher, but their guys give them a chance to win a lot of games.”

That last part raises an important question: do the Pirates need an ace?

All off-season I’ve been of the opinion that any pitcher we acquire should be a top of the rotation option. On an optimistic viewpoint of all of the 2010 pitching options, you’ve got a bunch of 2-4 starters, but no number one starter, and that includes Brad Lincoln.  A lot of the free agents that were available this off-season were 3-5 guys, although there were a few who could have emerged as top of the rotation material.  Obviously that would have helped the Pirates, but is it really a need right now?

First, what is the impact of a “dominant starter”?  Let’s say that we’re talking about a 3.00 ERA pitcher that pitches 200 innings per season.  If you’ve got the basic rotation with a number one through five pitcher, you’ll likely have results similar to the following (I’m assuming 200 IP per spot, but not necessarily all from the same pitcher):

#1: 3.00 ERA, 200 IP
#2: 3.75 ERA, 200 IP
#3: 4.00 ERA, 200 IP
#4: 4.50 ERA, 200 IP
#5: 5.00 ERA, 200 IP

TOTAL: 4.06 ERA

That ERA would have ranked seventh in the majors in 2009 amongst team starters, although only one team saw 1000 innings from their rotation, with the average team seeing 942 innings.  Now let’s assume you don’t have a number one starter, but at the same time you don’t have a number five starter, and in their place you have two additional number three starters, giving you the following rotation:

#2: 3.75 ERA, 200 IP
#3: 4.00 ERA, 200 IP
#3: 4.00 ERA, 200 IP
#3: 4.00 ERA, 200 IP
#4: 4.50 ERA, 200 IP

TOTAL: 4.06 ERA

The result ends up being the same.  You don’t have the flash of a number one starter, but in the long run you’re giving up the same amount of runs.  Would it be an overly optimistic view to imagine the Pirates with a 2010 rotation like the one above?  Let’s take a look at the makeup of the rotation.

Paul MaholmMaholm dealt with some injuries in 2009, although he may have gotten over them at the end of the season, posting a 2.89 ERA in his final seven starts of the season.  Maholm put up a 3.71 ERA in 2008, so it wouldn’t be too optimistic to assume he could fill the number two requirements from above.  Maholm is also an innings eater, averaging 200 per season in the last two seasons.

Zach DukeDuke looked to finally put things together last year, with a 4.06 ERA in 213 innings.  If he repeats that, he easily fills one of the number three roles.  The only question is whether his final two months are anything to be concerned over.  The Pirates claim it’s Duke’s workload on the side that was the problem, leading to a 5.80 ERA over the final two months.  If they can avoid that in 2010, he’s got a good shot of repeating his 2009 success.

Ross OhlendorfOhlendorf already put up a season that you’d want from a number three starter in the example above, posting a 3.92 ERA in 176.2 innings in 2009.  He probably could have pitched more, but the Pirates limited him at the end of the season, despite a strong 3.35 ERA from July to the end of the season.  Ohlendorf will have to do the unthinkable, and that is put up back to back strong seasons from a Pirates’ starter.

Charlie Morton – The “take out the Cubs game” line has been used above.  I really like what Morton brings to the table, especially with almost a year to work with Joe Kerrigan.  Morton in 2009 put up better numbers than Ohlendorf did in 2008 with the Pirates, which is a sign of encouragement.  I think he could fit the final #3 role.

Daniel McCutchen/Kevin Hart - McCutchen posted a 4.21 ERA in six starts in 2009, which is hardly a good sample size to use.  However, McCutchen has good stuff, and it’s not much of a reach to assume he could put up a 4.50 ERA over the course of a season.  Kevin Hart looks to be the favorite to start the season in the rotation, and as Pat from WHYGAVS points out, Hart seems to be the next project for Joe Kerrigan, following Ross Ohlendorf in 2009.  If Hart can come anywhere close to Ohlendorf’s 2009 season, he could easily fill the #4 starter role.

Brad Lincoln – It’s very possible that Duke or Maholm could be traded this season to make room for Lincoln, similar to what we saw with Nate McLouth last year when Andrew McCutchen arrived.  I think that will heavily depend on the progress of the other pitchers in the rotation, especially Morton and the winner of the Hart/McCutchen battle.  My guess is that Duke would be the one to go, since he is only under control through the 2011 season.  Baseball America calls Lincoln an eventual number three starter, and possibly a number two guy.  I guess it’s just a question of whether he reaches that potential right away when he comes up in June 2010.

I don’t think any of the individual projections above would be overly optimistic.  What I do think is optimistic is expecting all of those projections to come true, which would mean the 2008 version of Maholm, the 2009 versions of Duke and Ohlendorf, a 4.00 ERA from Morton, and Hart stepping up with a 4.50 ERA, with Lincoln replacing Duke mid-season with the same production.  That’s probably why Huntington called this a best case scenario.

I’ve yet to see a good argument as to why the Pirates need a number one starter in 2010.  The argument that is brought up in reference to the 2009 Minnesota Twins would be their offense.  The Twins have Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau anchoring their offense, plus some underrated hitters in Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Denard Span.  However, that has nothing to do with the rotation.  The Minnesota rotation provides a chance to win most games, and the offense capitalizes on those chances.  You could say the Pirates’ offense isn’t in the same leagu

e, but wouldn’t that be a problem with the offense, and not the approach towards pitching?  If the offense isn’t good enough to win with the optimistic 2-4 rotation I listed above, then adding a number one guy isn’t going to help much.

Then there’s the general arguments for the value a number one starter brings to the table.  The most common argument is that a number one starter gives the team a guy who can go out and stop a four game losing streak.  My opinion is that if you’ve got a problem with four game losing streaks, maybe you need to focus on more than just the first rotation spot.  Adding a guy who can guarantee a win in that situation still gives you a 1-4 record over that stretch.  Like the offense situation, the lack of a number one starter in this scenario is a scapegoat for a bigger issue on the team.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do find a certain value in a number one starter, but I think we have to put “number one starter” in context.  After opening day, does it really matter who is number one and who is number five?  It’s all the same after opening day, unless you’re a contender in the playoffs.  That’s when a number one starter is important.  At that point you can throw your number one starter out there to get you a quick 1-0 lead in the series, then have him ready for game four of the series, and maybe even game seven if needed.

It’s a big stretch to imagine the Pirates as playoff contenders in 2010, which is the main reason why I don’t think a number one starter is needed.  I think the bigger goal should be making sure the other rotation spots are secure with 2-4 options at this point in the rebuilding plan.  Down the line, if the plan is successful and the Pirates are contenders, then it might be a need to go after a number one starter, assuming the group of Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and Garrett Jones doesn’t provide the Pirates with offensive production similar to Morneau, Mauer, Cuddyer, and Kubel of the Twins.  For now, I’d rather the Pirates focus on building the foundation of their rotation, and making sure they have five reliable starters, which is far more important than focusing on just one great starter.

Tim Williams

Author: 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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