2010 Position Recap: The Rotation

In the last year, almost every television show my wife and I watch has been either cancelled, has reached the end of a long run, or is set to be cancelled after one final season.  As a result, heading in to this fall, we found ourselves with three remaining shows, all of them on Thursday night.  We live in a town where the only choices that you have after 8:00 PM are:

-Go to bed early and cry yourself to sleep

-Check out the new “restaurants” (aka, fast food places)

-Watch TV

We decided to scout out a few new programs, hoping to find a few new shows to replace the old ones that have disappeared in the last year or so.  So far there have been some quick exits (Lone Star), some mediocre shows (Undercovers, No Ordinary Family), and some decent starts (The Event, Outsourced), although the new shows have lacked a true ace, similar to what “24″ was during its run (Boardwalk Empire could count for the ace in my book, but that’s on HBO, so you expect it to be good).

This isn’t unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching rotation during the 2010 season.  Coming in to the year the Pirates had very few established starters.  Paul Maholm was good in 2008, but struggled in 2009.  Zach Duke was horrible leading up to 2009, but had a surprise year.  Ross Ohlendorf had a breakout year in 2009, but the history of Pirates’ starters showed that it was uncommon for a starter to have back to back strong seasons.

Outside of those three, the Pirates had some options with potential, or the new shows if you will.  Those were Charlie Morton, Daniel McCutchen, and Kevin Hart in AAA.  Those new shows didn’t turn out so well.  Morton completely bombed, McCutchen struggled in the rotation, and was sent to AAA before eventually being converted to a reliever, and Hart injured his rotator cuff, ending his season after being a favorite to open the year in Pittsburgh when the season began.

The returning shows didn’t fare so well either.  Duke, who struggled toward the end of the 2009 season, was horrible in 2010.  Maholm also had a down year.  In each case, the pitchers were unlucky, pitching better than their ERAs.  Even without the poor luck, Duke wouldn’t have been more than a #4-5 starter, while Maholm would have been more of a #3 starter.  Ohlendorf did manage to put up a repeat year as the lone bright spot in the rotation.

The Pirates tried several “new shows” throughout the season.  Brad Lincoln made his debut, but struggled due to a change in his mechanics, and was sent back down to AAA to work things out.  Things got so bad that Jeff Karstens and Brian Burres combined to make 32 starts.  What’s worse is that each pitcher put up numbers similar to what you’d expect from a decent #5 starter, and that was seen as a high note for the season.

McDonald was one of the few bright spots from the rotation this year.

The one new addition that did work was James McDonald.  The Pirates traded Octavio Dotel to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline, landing McDonald and outfielder Andrew Lambo.  McDonald was spectacular in his time with the Pirates, with a 3.52 ERA in 64 innings, along with a 61:24 K/BB ratio during that span.  McDonald now runs in to the speculation as to whether he can repeat his success the following season.

At the end of the season the Pirates finished up in a similar situation.  Ohlendorf and McDonald have earned rotation spots heading in to next year.  Maholm will get his spot due to his guaranteed contract, although he could return to his 2008 numbers with a stronger infield defense behind him.  The rest of the rotation comes down to a bunch of “new shows”.

Help is on the Way

One of the highlights in the organization this year came at the AA level, as Altoona’s pitching rotation featured four of the top prospects in the organization, with all four possibly arriving as soon as June 2011.  Those four pitchers are Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson.  Owens was named the Pirates’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the second straight season, after putting up a 2.46 ERA in 150 innings, with a 132:23 K/BB ratio.  Morris and Locke both had a lot of success in high-A, then carried that success over to the AA level.  Wilson had a good season, with a 3.09 ERA in 142.2 innings, along with a 134:71 K/BB ratio.

Heading in to the off-season, the Pirates have three sure bets for the rotation: James McDonald, Ross Ohlendorf, and Paul Maholm.  It’s very likely that Zach Duke will be non-tendered, as he would likely make close to $6 M in his final year of arbitration, and he’s not worth that much.  The Altoona pitchers won’t, and shouldn’t, arrive until at least June, which leaves two spots open for Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, Brad Lincoln, or Brian Burres.

Karstens and Burres are both the same pitcher, and the Pirates can only afford the roster space to keep one.  My preference would be Karstens, although I don’t think he should start the season in the rotation.  Karstens is more of a #6/7 starter.  He’s a guy you keep in the bullpen as the long man, and use as a starter in the event of an injury.  The same can be said for Burres.

Morton came on strong at the end of the season, and deserves another shot next season, as I wrote a few weeks ago.  Lincoln also showed brief glimpses that the issues with his mechanics could be behind him.  However, starting the season with both guys in the rotation, and only Karstens backing them up until June, is a recipe for another disaster of a season.

The Pirates have help on the way, but they can’t expect all four pitchers from the Altoona rotation to arrive this season.  They also can’t expect all four to have success, much less having that success right away.  If they’re lucky, three of those pitchers will arrive by mid-season, and one of those three will have instant success.

For those reasons, it’s imperative that the Pirates add a starter this off-season, either through a trade or through free agency.  Adding an external starter would lock up four of the five rotation spots.  It would allow the Pirates to start the season with Morton in the rotation as the #5 starter, with Lincoln getting more time to work in AAA.  If Morton’s September was a fluke, and he continues to struggle, the Pirates could call up Lincoln.  If Lincoln struggles, they could go with the Altoona group, which by that point would be the Indianapolis group.

There are no guarantees with McDonald, Ohlendorf, Maholm, and any starter that is brought in, but that rule exists whether they have one open rotation spot or two.  By limiting the openings to one spot, the Pirates have less of a chance of seeing guys like Karstens and Burres making a ton of starts in 2011.  And if things do work out, and they don’t have room for the AA pitchers in June?  Well, after this season I don’t think you’ll find any Pirates fans who would think there is such a thing as “too much pitching”.

The Future

The Pirates added three potential top of the rotation talents this year, drafting Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, and signing 16 year old Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia.  Taillon and Allie throw in the upper 90s already, while Heredia throws 92-93, and could reach the upper 90s as he matures.  The upside with these three players provides a strong chance that the Pirates will have at least one top of the rotation starter on their hands in the future, although that future won’t be until June 2013 at the earliest, and that’s an optimistic time frame that only applies to Taillon.

The Pirates have a lot of pitching depth coming through the minors, which is a big change from a few years ago.  They have Lincoln, Owens, Locke, Morris, and Wilson potentially in AAA to start the 2011 season.  Altoona should see a rotation with Nathan Adcock, Aaron Pribanic, Brian Leach, and possibly Tim Alderson and Nathan Baker.  Bradenton should have Quinton Miller, Brett Lorin, Phillip Irwin, Kyle McPherson, and possibly guys like Eliecer Navarro, Hunter Strickland, and Tyler Waldron.  That’s not even mentioning all of the middle round high school prospects from the last two drafts, who will be starting the 2011 season below the high-A level.

Looking at that list, you could make a strong case that every pitcher named is a real prospect.  That said, you could make the same strong case that there’s not a single #1 or #2 starter in that group.  A top of the rotation starter usually takes one of two paths.  The starter either has the high velocity and pedigree of a guy like Taillon, or he makes it to the majors with the hype of a middle of the rotation starter, and over time becomes reliable enough to be considered an “ace”.

The Pirates are at least two and a half seasons away from Taillon arriving, and even if he arrives early, there’s no guarantee that he lives up to his potential right away, or even at all.  That’s why the massive group of pitching prospects is so important.  For one, it increases the odds of finding that guy who can be counted on to give you a strong start every five days, despite having a 90-93 MPH fastball.  More importantly, it potentially gives the Pirates some trading chips in an area that is in demand for every Major League team, every year.

Even if only 20% of the pitchers named above have success in the majors, that’s four major league starters, arriving in the next year or two.  That’s not counting the guys who look like legit prospects in the minors, who may or may not have success in the majors.  The Pirates need pitching help, but there’s only five rotation spots, and they’ve got a few of those spots covered.  Therefore, the Pirates could be to the point where they could afford to trade a pitching prospect or two, and in return get an established pitcher for the major league rotation.

The Pirates have focused heavily on pitching in the last three drafts, as well as in the trade returns the last three years.  That pitching is starting to arrive, with the first wave potentially coming in June 2011.  With the pitching depth the Pirates have built, it would be extremely hard for them to NOT build a successful rotation.  The only question is when will that rotation come together?  The Pirates have the makings of a strong offense with Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker.  The question isn’t “Can the Pirates build a successful pitching staff” but “Can they build a successful pitching staff in time”?  If the Pirates want to finally compete in the next few years, the pitching staff needs to come together quickly.  A boost from the outside would certainly help those matters.

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.

Share This Post On
  • Anonymous

    “For those reasons, it’s imperative that the Pirates add a starter this off-season, either through a trade or through free agency.”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CMQTDKA45P4A264G5MS655DNNM Stefan

    I personally dont see a reason for Brad Lincoln to start the season in AAA. You have to give Morton, Maholm, McDonald, Ohlendorf, and the new pitcher at least ten starts by that time the Altoona crew will be ready and Brad will be lost in the mix. You have to believe that the Altoona crew will be very successful at AAA because most people agree that AA is were most of the talent is becuase AAA is where failed prospects reside.

    I wouldnt mind seeing the pirates add a pitcher through FA but i believe that a big right bat is a better use of are resources. Although we have four good top of the order batter in McCutchen, Tabata, Walker, and Alvarez we still need more. I still like Jones and dont know why everyone is jumping off the GI Jones train after one okay season—-he lead the team in RBIs and hrs. But we still need a right handed power bat!