The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation improved their overall record and ERA during the 2011 season when they put up a 49-61 record and a 4.21 ERA, improving from a 34-84 record with a 5.28 ERA in 2010.
Over the offseason, the club upgraded their starting staff by signing lefty Erik Bedard to a one-year deal in December. They also acquired right-hander A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees in February for a pair of minor league prospects. Burnett will start the season on the DL, but the Pirates rotation looks to be stronger for 2012.
“I think our starting pitchers understand better the exact nature of their role,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s not that you get the ball every fifth day. There’s a lot more to it than that. It’s just as important what you do the other four days to prepare.”
“It’s great,” Erik Bedard said on the pitching staff. “We’re still missing one with A.J. He’ll be back soon. Everybody has good stuff. They throw strikes. They have good command. They always give the team an opportunity to win, and that’s what you want in a starter.”
The Pirates starting rotation will lineup with Erik Bedard, getting the Opening Day nod on April 5th. Bedard will be followed by Jeff Karstens, James McDonald and Kevin Corriea, who will get the first start on the road this season in Los Angeles.
“Matchups throughout the month, the statistical analysis, some history, and other things,” Hurdle said on the reason behind his decision on the rotation. “We felt our strongest rotation coming out of the chute would fall this way. [Erik’s] done this before. It won’t be his first opening day start. That puts Jeff [Karstens] in a good position. I think the counter balance of the three guys, the three different looks right out of the shoot. No similar type pitchers. Then [Kevin] Correia, try to build on some of the momentum that he established last year on the road.”
Right-hander Charlie Morton will start the season on the 15-day Disabled List after going offseason left hip surgery. Morton is healthy, but needs a few more starts to build up his innings before he is ready to go in the rotation.
Because of how the Bucs schedule opens up this season, the club has two off days (April 6th and 9th) and can get by with a four-man rotation on regular rest until Morton re-joins the team.
Michael McKenry, who will back up Rod Barajas at the plate, likes what he sees from the starters this season.
“Burnett, he’s a special human being. He’s a guy that’s pitched in big games. He’s going to lead our staff,” McKenry said. “Then we got Bedard, who’s already shown what he can do. He’s a guy that can also lead any staff. Then you’ve got Karstens, who probably, if those guys weren’t acquired, would have been our No. 1 guy. [Correia] was an All-Star last year. Morton, who has front line stuff. Mac, who has front line stuff.”
“The way it pans out, it’s up to those guys. I think they’re wiling to put their foot down and go for it. That’s what they’ve got to do, have that attitude and effort every single day, have that conviction on every pitch. I think it will be real fun.”
Bedard, 33, will make his first Opening Day start since 2008 when he was with the Seattle Mariners. The left-hander also started Opening Day with the Baltimore Orioles in 2007.
“It’s going to be fun,” Bedard said. “Any of our starters could have done it, but I’m going to take in the opportunity to do it and do the best I can,” Bedard said. “It’s a good opportunity. Hopefully we’ll win the game.”
Bedard allowed four runs on five hits over five innings with two walks and two strikeouts during his final start of the Spring against the Baltimore Orioles. All four runs came from two home runs that Bedard allowed back-to-back in the fourth frame.
“Still worked good, worked quick,” Hurdle said on Saturday. “As far as commanding the running game when people on, that was efficient. Used all of his pitches, soft, hard, worked the ball glove side, all the things we expect out of him he was able to do.”
Overall this spring, Bedard 5.03 ERA over five starts. Bedard made 23 starts during the 2011 season combined with the Mariners and the Boston Red Sox and posted a 3.62 ERA.
Karstens, 29, last Grapefruit League start came on March 22nd. His last trip to the mound came against the Triple-A Blue Jays in a minor league game so that he could pitch deep into the game with Hurdle being able to give the relievers their scheduled work.
Over 7.1 innings in Dunedin, Karstens scattered three hits and gave up no runs. He walked two and struck out 10 batters while throwing 98 pitches. Karstens said one of his goals before leaving spring training was to get up to around 100 pitches.
“Now I know my next start will be nice and light,” Karstens said. “After that, it’s full go until Clint thinks you’re done. There’s no pitch count, guys pitching on certain days. Its whoever’s got to go, has to go, so we got to be ready to go once Sunday comes around. Just kind of see where it takes us.”
Karstens will make his final Spring start in Florida on Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays before starting game two at PNC Park against the Philadelphia Phillies. Karstens had a team-leading 3.38 ERA with Pittsburgh last season. He established career high’s in wins (9), starts (26), innings pitched (162.1) and strikeouts (96).
McDonald, 27, made five starts this spring where he posted a 9.16 ERA over 18.2 innings. His last start came on Thursday where he allowed 10 runs on seven hits over 3.2 innings with seven walks. McDonald’s start prior to that, was much more impressive. The right-hander tossed 5.1 of hitless ball, and overall allowed just one run on two hits over 7.0 innings. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out three while throwing 75 pitches.
“I didn’t make the adjustment,” McDonald said after the game. “The last game I was able to make that adjustment. Step back, get back into focus. I kind of let things speed up, and I didn’t really step off the mound and get that focus. Luckily it was a spring training game to learn from, rather than a September, August or even next week when it counts.”
McDonald posted a 9-9 record with a 4.21 ERA over 31 starts with Pittsburgh during the 2011 season. He led the staff in starts and strikeouts (142) — the most by a Pirates right-hander since Ian Snell lead the team with 177 in 2007.
Correia, 31, made five starts this spring where he posted a 7.71 ERA over 16.1 innings. He struggled in his last start before the season kicks off on Thursday against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. The right-hander allowed 10 runs on 12 hits over 2.1 innings.
Correia was named as one of the three Pirates All-Stars last season during his first year as a Bucco. He led the Pirates staff in wins (12) while posting a 4.79 ERA. Correia posted a 10-3 record with a 2.64 ERA on the road last season with the Pirates. That was compared to a 7.71 ERA at PNC Park over 12 starts. Correia will get the first start on the road to start the season in Los Angeles against the Dodgers to gain momentum into the season.
Morton, 28, will start the season on the Disabled List. Despite being healthy after undergoing left hip surgery over the offseason, Morton is behind in the rotation and needs to build up arm strength before being ready to jump into the rotation.
“While we’re excited about where he is, and it’s a tremendous progress to be where he is, our belief is to give him another start down here [in Bradenton] before Philadelphia. Then probably one start in the minor leagues, then reevaluate at that point in time,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said. “Charlie’s time frame is to start here in a sim game on the 4th, be in Pittsburgh for Opening Day, then he’ll go make a start for Indianapolis on the 9th if everything stays on schedule. Then we will reevaluate at that point in time.”
Morton, although disappointed, understood the decision.
I don’t fault anyone for a decision where they think I might need a little bit extra time to get ready,” Morton said after being told the news.
Burnett, 35, continues to take steps forward to getting back on the mound. He underwent right eye surgery on March 2nd, after a freak accident where he fractured his right orbital bone after taking a foul bunt off his eye. Burnett tossed three innings in a Minor League game on Sunday. It marked Burnett’s first game action of the spring.
The right-hander gave up just one hit — a single to outfielder Starling Marte — while throwing 54 pitches against the Pirates Triple-A club in an intrasquad game at Pirate City.
“Delivery looks sound. He got a little quick in the first inning, but after that he was fine,” Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage said.
Burnett will throw a side session on Tuesday, then make his first rehab start for the Bradenton Marauders (High-A) on April 6th. After that outing, Burnett will be reevaluated for his next steps.
“For the most part I got my work in,” Burnett said of his outing. “Could have been a little sharper, will be a little sharper, but gotta get that pitch count up and that’s what today is for.”
by Tim Williams
The Pirates will open the season with a lot of depth at the Triple-A level, providing options throughout the year. In the short-term, Brad Lincoln and Jeff Locke could serve as rotation options. Lincoln was recently optioned to Triple-A, where he will join the starting rotation. Lincoln would be the first to get the call if the Pirates need an extra starter before A.J. Burnett or Charlie Morton return.
Jeff Locke only has five starts at the Triple-A level, and will need some more time at the level before he gets another shot at the majors. He’s not that far off, and could be an option if the Pirates need a pitcher after the first month of the season. The left-hander has good velocity on his fastball, and a good big-breaking curve, but he needs to clean up his command before making the jump to the majors full-time.
Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson will re-join the Indianapolis rotation in 2012, after spending the entire season at the level in 2011. Owens had a down year in 2011, getting hit for the first time in three years. He didn’t respond well, and stopped trusting his stuff. He later developed a shoulder injury. Owens could get back on track and possibly reach his upside as a number three starter if he gets back to trusting his stuff. One scout I spoke to this Spring said that his pitches look more crisp than they did last year, which is a good sign as he tries to bounce back.
Wilson has always struggled with his control. He’s got some of the best stuff in the system, and would be a very strong prospect if it weren’t for the control issues. The Pirates moved him to the Indianapolis bullpen last year to focus on those control issues. The left-hander hit 99 MPH on several occasions, but was still wild. He will move back to the rotation this year. His control is inconsistent. When he’s locating his pitches, he’s a dominant starter. When his control is off, he can’t find the strike zone. If he could limit the bad outings, he’d have a shot at making it to the majors as a starter, although he’s more of a long-shot than the others in the rotation.
The top prospect at the level is Kyle McPherson. The right-hander was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year, after putting up a 2.89 ERA in 71.2 innings in high-A, followed by a 3.02 ERA in 89.1 innings at the Double-A level. He will make the jump to Triple-A this year, and could force his way in to the major league rotation by July if he carries his Altoona success over to Indianapolis. He’s got the upside of a 200 inning a year number three starter, with a shot at being a number two starter in a weaker rotation.