It seems strange to start an article about the 5th starter battle with this statement, but here goes: far too much is made about the 5th starter out of Spring Training.
For one, how many teams use just five starters in a season? Last year the Pirates had seven starters making ten starts or more, and two more starters making nine starts. In 2009 they had seven starters making double digit starts. In 2008 they only had five starters make double digit starts, although that was probably because the other eight starters weren’t good enough to rack up that many appearances.
Second, if your options for a fifth starter are dim, you can usually go with four starters for the first few weeks of the season, due to the breaks in the schedule early in the season.
That said, I do see why it is always important for the Pirates. The rotation lacks a number one starter, and while James McDonald pitched like a number two starter last year, the sample size is far too small to put that label on him. Since the current rotation has mostly #3-4 starters, the Pirates will need a strong effort from their #5 starter, in order to make up for lost ground at the top of the rotation.
The 5th starter job this year looks to be between Charlie Morton, Brad Lincoln, and Scott Olsen. Guys like Brian Burres are technically in the mix, but unless there are a ton of injuries this Spring, they are unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Chances are that all three contenders will end up making starts for the Pirates this year, whether that’s due to performance, injuries, or just a situational need, like a spot start scenario. The question is, what chances do they have of winning the job out of Spring Training?
Before we break down those three players, let’s address why one of the worst pitching teams in 2010 has just one starting role up for grabs heading in to 2011. The projected 25-man roster has James McDonald, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Kevin Correia in the rotation. All four are locks for various reasons.
McDonald was excellent in 2010 after being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers, earning his spot heading in to the 2011 season. Maholm is in the final year of his contract, being paid $5.75 M this year, which makes him a lock, not to mention his previous success. Ohlendorf has had an ERA around 4.00 the last two seasons, which secures his spot. Correia was signed to start, so there’s no way he’s not getting an automatic spot.
That leaves Morton, Lincoln, and Olsen fighting for the final three spots. Here is the breakdown on each player:
Charlie Morton: Morton is out of options, and coming off a horrible season in 2010, which saw him get demoted to AAA. Morton wouldn’t even be in consideration for the job, except for the fact that he managed to finish the 2010 season on a strong note. He had some success in 2009, which was masked by one horrible outing. 2010 was the complete opposite, with the majority of his season resembling a train wreck, outside of one strong month. Morton’s lack of options, and his strong September performance could make him the front runner for the job. If he doesn’t win the job, I could see him going to the bullpen. The only way I see him getting cut is if he totally bombs in Spring Training, similar to his performances in 2010.
Scott Olsen: Olsen was signed to help the rotation, although he is only guaranteed $550 K, which doesn’t exactly lock him in for a spot out of Spring Training. The Pirates might have trouble trying to get Olsen to accept a bullpen role, as he has shown attitude problems in the past when moved to relief. Olsen does have an option, although that could also be an issue sending him to AAA. Despite the potential head case issues that have surrounded Olsen, the Pirates can’t make their decisions based on his attitude problem. Olsen should reach the rotation at some point this year, but I could see him starting off in the bullpen at the beginning of the year. I don’t think it’s a lock, as I see him even with Morton, but I think Morton will get the edge, simply to give Morton one final shot to prove himself.
Brad Lincoln: I don’t give Lincoln much of a chance to make the team out of Spring Training. He came up last year only to struggle due to an adjustment that went wrong. After returning to AAA and getting back on track he made his way back to the majors, having success in the bullpen. Lincoln struggles with his changeup, which might make him a reliever in the long term. He did have success in the bullpen at the end of the year, although that doesn’t say much for his chances of success in the rotation. Lincoln has options remaining, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pirates send him down to pitch in the AAA rotation. That would allow them to make sure he’s got everything worked out before bringing him back up to the majors for another shot. I could see him arriving before June, and before any of the 2010 Altoona starters arrive.
My guess is that the battle will be 50/40/10 between Morton/Olsen/Lincoln. The only way I see Lincoln getting the spot is if he is absolutely dominant in Spring Training, against quality opponents. It would also help Lincoln if both Morton and Olsen bomb. I give Morton the edge, mostly due to his September numbers. I’m guessing Olsen will head to the bullpen, due to the lack of lefties available. I also think that one of Olsen or Lincoln will start before the month of June, either due to an injury, trade, or poor performance from one of the starters in the rotation.