The Pirates Need Another Starting Pitcher
The Pittsburgh Pirates made one addition to their starting rotation this off-season, adding Erik Bedard to a one year deal. Their rotation heading in to the year looks decent, with Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald all looking like locks for the rotation. They also have Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln as the top options for the fifth starter role. That group doesn’t have an ace, but has a few guys who qualify as number three starters, and one who could be a number two (Bedard).
Can the Pirates be satisfied with the addition of Bedard this off-season? Or should they be searching for one more starter to round out the rotation? Let’s take a look at the available options, the internal backup plans, and the external options that are available on the market to answer that question.
Locks For the Rotation
The Pirates signed Bedard to a one year, $4.5 M deal. He’s going to make the rotation without a doubt. The question is: how many innings will he throw? He threw 129.1 innings last year, but missed the 2010 season, and threw less than 85 innings in each of the previous two years. He’s only been above 150 innings twice in his career. When he is healthy his stuff is outstanding, and easily the best in the rotation. But expecting him to make 30 or more starts, which he’s only done once in his career, is being unrealistic.
Realistic Best Case Scenario: Trying to keep with reality here, the best case scenario would be a season similar to Bedard’s 2011 season. That would be 24 starts, 129.1 innings, and the great production that comes with it. Moving to the NL and pitching in PNC Park could help the left hander put up some strong numbers.
Contingency Plan Needed For: It’s not really a question of “Will Bedard get injured?” It’s a question of when he will get injured. If he only makes 15 starts like the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Pirates will need someone they can rely on for half a season. And there’s no guarantee that an injury will wait until someone like Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, or Rudy Owens is ready to come up mid-season.
Karstens is coming off a year where he had a 3.38 ERA in 162.1 innings. He wasn’t as good as those numbers, helped by a 77.4% stand rate and a .275 BABIP. Those numbers should regress in 2012, but Karstens has the stuff to put up solid numbers.
Realistic Best Case Scenario: His xFIP in 2011 was a 4.00. Last year he pitched 162.1 innings, which was his highest since 2006 when he threw 190.1 innings between AA, AAA, and the majors. His 2011 season could put him in position to make a full season’s worth of starts. If he can do that with a 4.00 ERA he would provide the Pirates with a good number three starter.
Contingency Plan Needed For: Karstens is a pretty safe play, although he’s not a high reward guy unless he can somehow have another lucky season. He was unlucky in 2010, with a .309 BABIP and a 12.5% HR/FB ratio. Despite having a 4.26 xFIP his ERA was 4.92. If his 2011 luck swings too far in the other direction, and goes to the 2010 numbers, the Pirates might have to look for a replacement.
McDonald’s numbers took an early hit in the month of April when he came back too soon from a Spring Training injury. He had a 10.12 ERA in his first four starts of the year. From that point forward he put up a 3.49 ERA in over 150 innings. In 2010 with the Pirates he had a 3.52 ERA in 64 innings.
Realistic Best Case Scenario: His xFIP numbers are closer to a 4.00, but McDonald has played above those numbers in each of his two years with the Pirates. If he can put up numbers in the 3.50 ERA range again, he could prove that it wasn’t luck.
Contingency Plan Needed For: His luck last year was in the form of a 77% strand rate. He’s dealt with some walk issues in his career, which will start to hurt once his strand rate drops to the normal rates. He’s also a fly ball pitcher, which means we should expect more HR/9 ratios like his 1.26 in 2011.
Morton turned in to a whole new pitcher in 2011. He added a new grip for his sinker, and re-worked his delivery to match the delivery of Roy Halladay. The end result was that Morton had a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 innings. His xFIP wasn’t far off those numbers, sitting at a 4.08.
Realistic Best Case Scenario: Now that he has a full season with his new delivery and new pitch, Morton should be comfortable enough to avoid some of the inconsistencies he saw during the 2011 season. There were times when he struggled with his sinker, and there were other times when he was hard to hit. The Pirates could expect a 3.75 ERA over a full season if he can minimize those inconsistencies in 2012.
Contingency Plan Needed For: His control has been bad, and he doesn’t strike out a lot of batters. Unless he either cuts down on the walks or increases the strikeouts, he’ll be relying on his defense a lot. That could lead to some bad starts, and possibly throw him off his game. He could also miss time at the start of the year, although the Pirates won’t need a fifth starter until April 24th. They will only need one spot start before that point, and Morton could be back by the 24th.
Fifth Starter Competition
Correia had an interesting year in 2011. He won a lot of games at the start of the year, although a lot of that had to do with some amazing run support from his offense. He got off to a strong start at the beginning of the year, was decent in May and June, then fell apart in July and August, before being shut down in mid-August. He saw a major decline in his strikeout numbers, and his 4.79 ERA was unlucky when looking at his 4.38 xFIP.
Realistic Best Case Scenario: I always liked Correia, but part of that was due to his strikeout rate. With a 4.5 K/9 he’s just a right handed Zach Duke, which is a horrible fit for PNC Park. If he can get his strikeout rate back to his career 6.26 K/9 mark, or even to his 7.14 K/9 in 2010, then he could have a shot of putting up an ERA in the 4.20 range.
Contingency Plan Needed For: If Correia repeats his 2011 numbers it wouldn’t be the worst thing. A 4.79 ERA is above-average for a fifth starter in the majors. However, the Pirates can’t settle for above-average fifth starter numbers when they lack a number one starter to balance out the rotation. It might be harder for Correia to remain in the rotation in 2012 if he repeats his 2011 season.
Lincoln got a shot at the end of the year, putting up a 4.72 ERA in 47.2 innings. His numbers were inflated by six runs in 1.2 innings during his next to last start. He definitely earned an opportunity to start in the majors.
Realistic Best Case Scenario: His xFIP during his short 2011 season was 4.02. If he can do that over a full season, he would add value to the rotation and prove he belongs.
Contingency Plan Needed For: Lincoln is unproven, which is reason enough to have a backup plan.
Internal Contingency Plans
Jeff Locke - He made five starts in the majors last year, but didn’t look ready. He needs more time in AAA, but could be an option by mid-May.
Rudy Owens - He had a down year in 2011, but I believe the stuff is still there to get him to the majors. He’ll need to prove that he’s back, which might keep him down until June at the earliest.
Kyle McPherson - He’s yet to pitch above the AA level. I could see him moving up to AAA to start the year, which wouldn’t put him in the majors until June or July, assuming he continues putting up good numbers in the jump to AAA.
Chris Leroux - He’s working as a starter in the Dominican Leagues, although that’s to force him to use his secondary pitches more often. He doesn’t have a history of pitching a lot of innings, setting a career high in 2011 with 93. The Pirates don’t consider him an option for the rotation because of his lack of innings, but he could become an emergency option in the middle of the year, at which point he probably wouldn’t see a major increase in his overall innings in 2012.
Jeff Francis - The left hander has had interest from the Pirates this off-season, although that was before they signed Bedard. He’s also drawn interest from the Twins, Mariners, Dodgers, and Rockies. He’s left handed, pitched 183 innings last year, and has posted a 47% ground ball ratios the last two years. He’d be a good fit for PNC Park.
Paul Maholm - It’s been surprising that Maholm hasn’t received much interest this off-season. Or maybe it hasn’t. In his career he has a 3.80 ERA at PNC Park and a 5.03 ERA on the road. He’d be a good fit for the Pirates, but not so much for other teams. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to bring him back and take advantage of his PNC Park numbers.
Wei-Yin Chen - The left hander from Taiwan will likely command a multi-year deal, and could end up getting $20 M over four years. He used to throw 95 MPH with dominant strikeout numbers. He had Tommy John surgery and now throws 91 MPH with a 5.1 K/9 in 2011. The left hander would be a good fit for PNC Park, although I’m not sure he’d be a much stronger option than Francis or Maholm, unless the 26 year old saw a return in his velocity.
Edwin Jackson - At the start of the off-season I chalked Jackson up as a guy who the Pirates couldn’t get. The lack of interest in the right hander this off-season could change that. There have been teams interested in Jackson, but not the interest you’d expect for a 28 year old pitcher coming off a season with a 3.79 ERA in 199.2 innings. Jackson’s xFIP has been in the 3.70 range the last two years. He strikes out about seven batters per nine innings, and has pitched 200+ innings in each of the last three seasons, if you include the 2011 playoffs. He made $8.35 M in 2011, and appears to be looking for a big deal.
Teams have been wary of Jackson’s price tag (Twins, Yankees) so far. In an interview at PirateFest, Frank Coonelly said that the 2012 Opening Day payroll will be “higher than at the end of the season, with flexible room in the budget to add a piece if needed”. The 2011 payroll ended around $53 M, which means the 2012 payroll could start at $55 M if the Pirates spend what Coonelly projects. Right now they’re projected for $46.177 M, which gives them some room to add payroll.
It’s not known what Jackson wants. Depending on his demands, the Pirates could be in a good position to land him by spending some money. There’s not much demand on him, which could mean that his price tag really is too high. However, there’s never really been a lot of demand for Jackson. He’s kind of an undervalued asset. His WAR the last three years has been 3.8, 3.8, and 3.6. He’s played for five teams in the last four years, including three teams in the last two years. He’s not an ace, but he’s a guy who can pitch 200 innings with an ERA in the 3.70 range. That has value, especially to the Pirates, who lack a 200 inning a year starter and have a rotation full of guys who are likely to end up in the 4.00 ERA range.
Jackson’s agent is Scott Boras, which means he’ll likely go to the highest bidder. Normally I’d say that if the Yankees are backing off Jackson’s price tag then it’s too high for the Pirates. Considering Jackson’s history, and how he’s been passed from team to team, I’d say that he might be a bit undervalued. It’s hard to say how the Pirates feel about him, but he’d do wonders for their rotation. In the short term he’d be a guy who would lead the rotation, likely in innings and numbers. In the long term he’d be a good option to stick behind Gerrit Cole and/or Jameson Taillon. A rotation with Jackson, Bedard, Karstens, McDonald, and Morton would be strong. The Pirates would have good backups at the start of the year in Correia and Lincoln. They’d also have some options that could be available mid-season in Locke, McPherson, and Owens.
Realistically the Pirates are going to need eight to seventeen starts to pair with Erik Bedard. They’re likely going to see one of Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, or Charlie Morton have a bad year. They’re going to see at least one other starter go down with an injury. Adding one more starter at the beginning of the year would be a huge boost to the rotation. It won’t hurt as much when Bedard goes down with an injury. It will be easier when someone else gets injured, or when one of the starting pitchers struggles. And if none of those things happen? Then it’s a good problem to have a rotation with a healthy Bedard, production from Karstens, McDonald, and Morton, and ideally, someone like Edwin Jackson leading the group. The Pirates have the money to make this possible, and at this point in the off-season that money might be best spent boosting the rotation.