A lot of focus goes to offense, and particularly power, in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. However, if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that pitching wins games. You can have a good offense, but you can lose due to a lack of pitching. Likewise, you don’t need the best offense if your pitching is strong. We saw the latter this year. The Pirates were winning and contending with strong pitching, despite a very poor offense. The offense picked up the pace in early August, but the pitching fell apart, and so did the team.
Offense is obviously important, but it’s pitching that wins. The strong pitching we’ve seen this year could lead to an excess of options next year, leaving some interesting decisions for the off-season. Here is a breakdown of those options, and how the rotation could look to start the 2012 season.
Paul Maholm - Maholm has an option year for $9.75 M, with a $750 K buyout. Due to his injury, there’s a chance he might not see that option picked up. The price would represent close to the max value of what Maholm is capable of, which means there’s a good chance the contract could give the Pirates value, but considering his inconsistent career, there’s also a good chance the contract looks like a big waste.
Kevin Correia - Correia is under control for one more year, at $3 M next year. He will likely get a rotation spot, despite his second half struggles this year. He’s not a top of the rotation starter, but his performance this year has been above average for a number four of five starter.
Jeff Karstens - Last year there were questions as to whether Karstens should be retained. This year, no such questions will exist, thanks to his 3.09 ERA in 148.1 innings. It will be interesting to see how much Karstens gets as a second time arbitration eligible player, especially following a breakout season where not everyone considers him legit.
Charlie Morton - Morton will be another interesting arbitration case. He went from being one of the worst starters of the year in baseball last year (possibly even the worst), to a 3.63 ERA in 144 innings this year. That’s been due to his sinker, which has made some big improvements this year. However, the sinker has also been inconsistent, which can be expected for a guy making the changes Morton has made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting around $2 M at least, similar to what Ross Ohlendorf got last year.
Ross Ohlendorf - Speaking of Ohlendorf, he will be eligible for arbitration again this year. However, he’s had a big down year, with injuries and poor performances when he’s been healthy. The month of September will be huge for him trying to win a spot next year, especially with a lot of spots looking to be locked up. I don’t think he’ll be a non-tender candidate, considering his previous success, but I do think the arbitration process will be easier this year.
Brad Lincoln - Lincoln is going to make a very interesting situation next year if he keeps pitching the way he has been in his last two starts with the Pirates. He will have six years of control remaining beyond the 2011 season, making him an option for the short term rotation and the long term rotation. If he has a strong month of September, I think he will lock down a starting role for next year.
James McDonald - McDonald might not have the best numbers, but he’s been one of the best pitchers in the rotation this year. A big issue has been his inability to go deep in to games, due to high pitch counts. A lot of that is due to strikeouts, with a staff leading 7.4 K/9, but he also has an issue with walks, with a 4.0 BB/9 ratio. He’s still got one more year of league minimum salary, and he’s pretty much a lock for the rotation.
Jeff Locke - He’s looked good since moving up to AAA, and he’s probably the best bet of this group to arrive early in the season if the Pirates have some injuries.
Kyle McPherson - I don’t see him arriving until June 2012 at the earliest, although he could be an option for next year, and is probably the best prospect that could arrive in the rotation in 2012.
Bryan Morris - It seems more likely that he remains in the bullpen, and that he arrives in the majors in that role.
Rudy Owens - Owens had a down year this year, and is currently on the AAA disabled list with a shoulder injury. It’s unlikely that the Pirates could rely on him to start the year, although he could be an option early in the season if he gets back on track in Spring Training and in April.
Aaron Thompson - We’ve only seen one start out of Thompson, and while he made a good outing, it’s too soon to say he’s a starting option for the Pirates, especially when he didn’t look strong in the minors this year. He does provide them with some depth, but it’s more likely that he ends up a relief pitching option.
Justin Wilson - I think Wilson has a better chance than Morris of moving back to the rotation, although he might be a better bet to arrive in the majors as a bullpen option.
Rotation Spot Locked Down - Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald
I don’t really see these three missing the rotation, unless there’s a trade or a injury.
Making Over $1 M - Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Kevin Correia
It will be interesting to see what they do with this group. Based on the above, they only need two of them as starters. They might only need one of these options, depending on what happens with Lincoln. I wouldn’t be surprised if they declined Maholm, or traded him. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Ohlendorf or Correia move to the bullpen, serving as emergency starters in the early part of the season.
Other Candidates - Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke
Honestly, I don’t see any of the depth guys getting a legit shot out of Spring Training, but Locke seems the most likely from this group. I think roster spots are decided well before Spring Training, which is why September will be so important for Lincoln. If he wins a spot, the middle group could become interesting. They’re the most expensive options, but you could argue that Ohlendorf, Correia, and even Maholm, are the 5th-7th best options on the team.