What Do the Pirates Have in Their 2011 Rotation?

Yesterday I looked at the average production around the majors from each spot in the rotation.  To recap, the numbers from each spot:

League Average

#1: 3.10 ERA

#2: 3.61 ERA

#3: 4.15 ERA

#4: 4.62 ERA

#5: 5.69 ERA

Average of the Top 15 Rotations

#1: 2.84 ERA

#2: 3.31 ERA

#3: 3.73 ERA

#4: 4.20 ERA

#5: 5.41 ERA

Average of the Bottom 15 Rotations

#1: 3.37 ERA

#2: 3.91 ERA

#3: 4.56 ERA

#4: 5.03 ERA

#5: 5.97 ERA

Range for Each Spot

#1: 3.36 ERA or less

#2: 3.36 – 3.88 ERA

#3: 3.88 – 4.38 ERA

#4: 4.38 – 5.15 ERA

#5: 5.15 ERA or greater

Today we will use those results to see what the Pittsburgh Pirates have in their rotation for the 2011 season.

James McDonald

McDonald could be anywhere from an average #2 starter to an average #3 starter.

It’s hard to predict what we will see from McDonald in 2011.  He was one of the best prospects in baseball heading in to the 2009 season, and was never really given a chance in the Los Angeles rotation.  His prospect status dropped by the time the Pirates acquired him, although there was no specific reason for the decline.  After entering the rotation, McDonald was on fire, with a 3.52 ERA in 64 innings over 11 starts.

Pirates fans have seen many starters put up good seasons, only to do a complete 180 the following season, so you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that McDonald will repeat his performance in 2011.  On the other hand, McDonald was a top prospect, so the performance wasn’t totally unexpected.  Here is how McDonald’s ERA would have stacked up in 2010:

-Would have upgraded every team’s #5 spot
-Would have upgraded 28 teams at the #4 spot (exception was St. Louis with a 3.51 ERA)
-Would have upgraded 26 teams at the #3 spot (exceptions were St. Louis, San Francisco, and Oakland)
-Would have been the #2 starter for 16 other teams (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #1 starter for 7 other teams (not including the Pirates, where he pretty much was a #1 starter)

McDonald’s performance in 2010 amounts to a league average #2 pitcher, or an ace on a bad rotation.  Again, it’s tough to predict how he will do in 2011, considering his 2010 performance was based on 11 starts.  He had an xFIP of 4.03, so it’s definitely possible that he fails to repeat his 3.52 ERA in 2011.  With a 4.03 ERA, he would be a league average #3 starter.

Ross Ohlendorf

Ohlendorf missed time with injuries in 2010, but finished up with a 4.07 ERA in his 108.1 innings, which was the second year in a row he had an ERA around 4.00.  In both years he was on the lucky side.  He had a .265 BABIP and a 76.3% strand rate in 2009, which were both lucky compared to the .300 and 70% league averages for starters.  His 2010 BABIP of .293 moved closer to the league average, although he was lucky with a 73.3% strand rate and a 7.7% HR/FB ratio (league averages are 70% and 10%).

While Ohlendorf has put up an ERA around 4.00, it’s very possible that he could be in the 4.75 range in 2011, assuming his ratios move toward the league average.  With an ERA around 4.00, he would have the following ratings in 2010:

-Would have upgraded every team’s #5 spot
-Would have upgraded 25 teams at the #4 spot (exceptions were St. Louis, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego)
-Would have been the #3 starter for 14 other teams (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #2 starter for 5 other teams (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #1 starter for 1 team (the Royals, although this was due to Greinke having a 4.17 ERA and the rotation being horrible)

With a 4.75 ERA:

-Would have upgraded 26 teams at the #5 spot (exceptions were Oakland, San Francisco, and the Cubs)
-Would have been the #4 starter for 11 other teams (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #3 starter for 3 other teams (not including the Pirates)

It really depends on what Ohlendorf does.  He could certainly put up an ERA around 4.00 again, although that would require some adjustments, such as more strikeouts, fewer home runs, and anything else to counter the additional runs that would come with a league average BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB ratio.  It’s more likely that he sees a regression in 2011, and ends up as a league average #4 starter.

Kevin Correia

Correia is coming off a down year, one year after putting up a 3.91 ERA.  In each season he had an xFIP around 4.20.  I’ve explained why I like Correia, which is why I think he can pitch to the level of a 4.20 ERA in 2011.  Here is how that would have looked in 2010:

-Would have upgraded every team’s #5 spot
-Would have upgraded 25 teams at the #4 spot (exceptions were St. Louis, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego)
-Would have been the #3 starter for 13 other teams (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #2 starter for 2 other teams (not including the Pirates)

That basically explains the “Correia is a #2 starter on the Pirates, and a #4 starter on a contender” comment.  He’s basically a league average #3 starter if he puts up a 4.20 ERA.

Paul Maholm

After a strong year in 2008, Maholm has struggled to bounce back during the last two years.  He put up a 4.44 ERA in 2009, and a 5.10 ERA in 2010.  His numbers are heavily influenced by the defense, due to being a ground ball pitcher.  He’s also seen his strikeout rate drop in each of the last two years, putting more emphasis on his defense (his biggest issue the last two years has been a high BABIP, which could be chalked up to poor defense).

Maholm had a 4.56 xFIP in 2010.  Bill James has him projected at 4.52, while ZiPS has him at 4.40 in 2011.  Let’s assume he puts up a 4.50 ERA in 2011, here is how that would have looked in 2010:

-Would have upgraded every team’s #5 spot
-Would have upgraded 16 teams at the #4 spot (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #3 starter for 8 other teams (not including the Pirates)

A 4.50 ERA from Maholm would be a league average #4 starter, or a #3 in a bad rotation.

Scott Olsen

I’m not really high on Olsen, as he has had two down years in a row, and even in a good 2008 season, his 4.20 ERA was mostly due to luck.  One encouraging sign is that he had a 4.39 xFIP in 2010, down from the 4.90-4.95 range the previous three seasons.  Still, I wouldn’t expect that out of him in 2011.  Bill James has a 4.81 ERA projected for him, while ZiPS has a 4.83 ERA.  Assuming he’s in the 4.82 ERA range, here is how he would have stacked up in 2010:

-Would have upgraded 26 teams at the #5 spot (exceptions were Oakland, San Francisco, and the Cubs)
-Would have been the #4 starter for 9 other teams (not including the Pirates)
-Would have been the #3 starter for 3 other teams (not including the Pirates)

Olsen is pretty much projected to be a strong number five starter, or a slightly below average number four starter.  That’s not bad, considering that’s the role he’s expected to compete for.

Jeff Karstens

Karstens had a 4.92 ERA in 2010, which was seen as a strong season, mostly due to how horrible most of the rotation was.  His numbers are actually strong for a fifth starter, and he had a 4.46 xFIP, so there’s a chance he could improve in 2010.  Bill James projects a 4.59 ERA, , although ZiPS projects a 5.06 ERA.  Karstens will probably be similar to Olsen, in that he will be around a 4.80 ERA, making him a strong number five starter, or a below average number four starter.

Charlie Morton

Morton was horrible in 2010, although he did have a 4.26 xFIP and came around in September with much better results.  I don’t think he is as bad as his 2010 numbers indicate, although I don’t think he’ll rebound to a 4.26 ERA in 2011.  Bill James projects a 4.50 ERA, while ZiPS projects a 4.95 ERA.  Morton will likely be similar to Karstens and Olsen: a strong number five, or a below average number four.

What Do the Pirates Have?

The Pirates definitely don’t have a number one starter, which is no secret.  They also might not have a true number two starter, depending on what we see from James McDonald in 2011.  I like the potential of guys like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Bryan Morris, although I think it would be too optimistic to project any of them to realize their potential right away in 2011.  Pitcher by pitcher, this is how the Pirates stack up:

James McDonald: Could be anywhere from an average number two starter to an average number three starter, depending on how far he falls from his 2010 numbers.

Ross Ohlendorf: Could be an average number three starter if he repeats his ERA totals from the last two years, although I think it’s more likely that he will regress and be an average number four starter.

Kevin Correia: I think he will be an average number three starter.

Paul Maholm: Looks to be an average number four starter.

Scott Olsen/Jeff Karstens/Charlie Morton: Strong number five starters.

Best case scenario, the Pirates could have an average number two (McDonald), two average number threes (Ohlendorf, Correia), an average number four (Maholm), and a strong number five (Olsen, Karstens, or Morton).  I think the more likely chance is that they will have two average number three starters, two average number four starters, and a strong number five starter.

Do They Need an Ace?

The Pirates definitely don’t have an ace, and the closest to the majors seems to be Jameson Taillon, who hasn’t even thrown a pitch yet.  But is an ace necessary?

The league average rotation combined for a 4.23 ERA in 2010.  The best case scenario for the Pirates above (average #2, two average #3s, average #4, and strong #5) would amount to a 4.31 ERA.  They wouldn’t have a better number five pitcher, but would be downgrading from an average number one (3.10 ERA) to an average number three (4.15 ERA).  That’s not far off the average rotation, but even if they made the jump to a 4.23 combined ERA, they’re still an average rotation, which doesn’t really help them contend.  They would need a strong offense to do anything with that, and I don’t think the young players they have are ready to do what the offenses in Texas and New York did for their below average rotations in 2010.

The Pirates don’t necessarily need an ace to be competitive, although an ace makes things a lot easier.  For example, the average top 15 rotation has a combined 3.90 ERA.  The Pirates would need two average number two starters, and three average number three starters to match that total.  Even in the best case scenario this year, if they got a 3.52 ERA from James McDonald, a 4.07 ERA from Ross Ohlendorf, and a 4.20 ERA from Kevin Correia, they would still need an average number two starter (3.61 ERA) and an average number three starter (4.15 ERA) to match up with the average top 15 rotation.

As mentioned above, the Pirates could go with an average rotation if their offense was good enough.  However, even with the previously mentioned “best case” results with McDonald/Ohlendorf/Correia, they would need two average #4 starters, which could be accomplished with Paul Maholm and one of the Olsen/Morton/Karstens group.  However, the Pirates would also need Andrew McCutchen to take it to the next level, Neil Walker to continue his 2010 success, Pedro Alvarez to become the 30+ home run a year guy he was projected to be, the Matt Diaz/Garrett Jones platoon to work as expected, and most likely Jose Tabata to develop some power for himself.  Any of these things individually would be possible, although to expect all of them to happen is a long shot, as it’s basically the best case scenario for the rotation, and the offense.

The 2011 rotation should see a huge upgrade over the 2010 rotation, which isn’t very hard to do.  However, it probably won’t be enough, as the Pirates don’t have a number one starter, and don’t have the talent in place to make up for that loss.  Their best hope would be for the Lincoln/Owens/Locke/Morris/Wilson group to develop some upgrades to the rotation, and for the young offensive weapons like Alvarez, McCutchen, Walker, and Tabata to further their progression at the major league level.  Considering how close the pitching prospects are to the majors, and considering how well the young hitters have done so far, we could start seeing the team come together in late 2011, and hopefully on track to see some serious improvements in 2012.

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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, 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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