When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Jeff Karstens last week, a lot of people assumed they were moving on from Francisco Liriano. Now that the team has agreed to a revised deal with Liriano, the speculation is that Karstens will take the final spot in the rotation, pushing Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson to Indianapolis at the start of the year.
That theory makes sense on the surface. The Pirates are paying Karstens $2.5 M. They usually don’t spend a lot on bullpen arms, usually keeping it around $1 M. Karstens is also somewhat established, in the sense that he has had success over the last two years. Locke and McPherson are not established. It would make sense to assume that Karstens will take the final spot in the rotation with Liriano now in the mix. However, there are other signs that have me thinking that one of Locke or McPherson will still be in the rotation, even with Liriano now taking up a spot.
First of all, there’s the timing of the Karstens deal. The Pirates didn’t sign Karstens until after they learned about Liriano getting hurt. The deal also came shortly before the Pirates agreed to the new deal with Liriano. That new deal with Liriano has a clause that lowers his pay if he misses time this year with his right-arm injury. We don’t know exactly what that injury is, or what the timetable for recovery will be for Liriano. What we do know is that there’s no guarantee he’s ready for Opening Day, and we know that because the Pirates re-structured his deal to prepare for the event that he could miss time. The fact that they signed Karstens a week before this happened suggests to me that Karstens was brought in to start if Liriano started the year on the disabled list.
Then there’s the problem Karstens has had with injuries. The right-hander has pitched well in each of the last two years. However, he’s been limited to about 250 innings, with only 90 of those inning coming in 2012. His lack of durability was clearly a concern when the team non-tendered him in December. I think we can expect at least 90 innings from Karstens, and anything after that would be a bonus. That’s another reason why I don’t think the Pirates were looking at Karstens to fill one of the rotation spots for the long-term. He hasn’t really demonstrated that he can fill a spot for the long-term.
The kicker for me was thinking back to last September. Karstens returned late in the season after missing a few weeks with an injury. The Pirates had Locke and McPherson in the rotation. The team had been in a free fall the final two months of the season, but they were still 74-73 when Karstens returned. That wasn’t close enough to contending, but it put them in range to finish with a winning record. Yet the Pirates kept Locke and McPherson in the rotation, and put Karstens in the bullpen the rest of the year, where he made four appearances. So we already had a situation where the Pirates placed Karstens in the bullpen, while giving a rotation spot to Locke and McPherson.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Locke and McPherson battle it out for the fifth starter role, even with Karstens and Liriano in the fold. I think that Karstens was brought in for three reasons. The first is to fill in for Liriano if the lefty misses time early in the season. The second is to step up and make a spot start when needed. Karstens has shown a good ability to move between the rotation and bullpen, which isn’t an easy task. Finally, if someone goes down throughout the year, the Pirates would have Karstens there to step in to the rotation. They also have the loser of the Locke/McPherson battle, plus Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton returning around mid-season. But typically teams need about eight or nine starters throughout the year. So Karstens would still get some starts, even after Cole arrives and Morton returns.
If you’re like me, you’re putting Karstens down for those 90 innings. He doesn’t have to be in the rotation from day one to get those innings. If he fills those three roles above (Liriano replacement, spot starter, injury replacement later in the year), I think he could easily get those 90 innings by the end of the year. I also think that if he’s not on a five day schedule, he might avoid breaking down, and might have a chance at going beyond those 90 innings. Karstens is a special pitcher. He’s kind of a utility pitcher. He can start, he can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, or he can pitch one inning at a time.
The Pirates don’t need Karstens in the rotation from day one to get the proper value from his $2.5 M contract. Karstens doesn’t need to bump Locke or McPherson from the rotation to get his expected amount of innings during the 2013 season. Plus, we’ve already seen a situation where the Pirates opted to go with Locke and McPherson over Karstens in the rotation, and that was at a time when the team was still within reach of a .500 record. I think Karstens will still compete for a job, and I think he’ll take a rotation spot if Liriano can’t start the year in the majors, but I don’t see him bumping Locke/McPherson from the rotation when Liriano is healthy enough to return.
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