First Pitch: The Starting Pitching Depth
With yesterday’s news that the Pirates were adding Jonathan Sanchez, and today’s news that they’re still on track to sign Francisco Liriano, the starting pitching scene is getting crowded. Here is a breakdown of all the options who are either currently on the team, or in the case of Sanchez/Liriano, expected to sign.
Guarantees for the Rotation
A.J. Burnett - Burnett had a 3.51 ERA in 202.1 innings last year, and his 3.40 xFIP backed that up. The move to the NL and out of the AL East really seemed to work for him.
Wandy Rodriguez - He’s not the same pitcher he was a few years ago, but Rodriguez is still effective. Between the Astros and Pirates he combined for a 3.76 ERA in 205.2 innings, with a 4.09 xFIP.
James McDonald - McDonald was a tale of two pitchers. He looked like an ace in the first half, and looked like a 4A pitcher in the second half. The end result was a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings. His xFIP was also 4.21. He might end up somewhere between the two different versions of himself in 2012, which could be that 4.21 range. In 2011 he had a 4.21 ERA and a 4.46 xFIP. I think projecting him for a 4.25-4.50 ERA is about right. Anything above that would be optimistic, and anything below would be pessimistic. That doesn’t mean McDonald can’t move outside of that range, just that he’s more likely to end up back in that area again.
Contenders for the Rotation
Francisco Liriano - Today we heard two updates that confirm the Pirates are still in on Liriano. First we heard that they wanted to sign both Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez. Later we heard that the deal was on track and the exam was delayed. Liriano isn’t really a contender for the rotation. He’ll be in the rotation once he’s signed and healthy. I’m just listing him here because there are still questions of when he will be healthy. He’s got some potential upside as a bounce back candidate. The move to the NL, and to PNC Park will both be good for the lefty. A big issue will be cutting down on walks.
Jeff Locke - At the start of the off-season it looked like Locke would be a guarantee for the rotation. The Pirates have added so many options that he could get pushed to Triple-A. I still think they’ll go with either him or McPherson for the fifth starter job, but that’s not a guarantee. Locke is major league ready, and has the upside of a strong 4th starter.
Kyle McPherson - McPherson has more upside than Locke, with the potential to be a number three, 200 innings per year workhorse. He doesn’t have as much time above Double-A, and has dealt with injuries in the last year. That could hurt his chances making the team out of Spring Training.
Jeff Karstens - He doesn’t have the best stuff, but he knows how to pitch. Karstens has put up some strong numbers when healthy the last two years. He had a 4.00 xFIP in 2011, and a 3.84 xFIP in 2012. The problem is that he struggles to stay healthy. In those two years he’s combined for about 250 innings. The Pirates can probably only count on 15 starts or 90 innings out of Karstens, so he’s not a full season option. He would be a good option as a sixth starter, or a short-term injury replacement.
Jonathan Sanchez - I wrote about Sanchez last night, and how he compares to Francisco Liriano. I’ve always liked Sanchez. He’s very wild, with a career walk rate of 5.0 BB/9, but he gets results even with the walks. That’s mostly due to the high strikeout numbers. Sanchez has put up an xFIP in the 3.94-4.36 range every year from 2007-2011. His numbers in 2012 were horrible, although they could have been due to biceps tendonitis, which sidelined him multiple times throughout the year. His ERA matched up with the xFIP from 2009-2011. If he can bounce back to that, the Pirates would be getting a steal. He’s coming in on a minor league contract, so he could spend some time in Indianapolis at the start of the year to prove he’s back to his old self.
Early Season Depth
With all of the options above, you don’t really need much early season depth. If the Pirates get to this point, we probably should be talking about who they’ll pick in the top five of the 2014 draft. But let’s go over the emergency options.
Chris Leroux - He started in the Dominican Winter League in 2011, but that was mostly to work on his off-season pitches. His changeup hasn’t really come along, which would prevent him from making it as a starter. He’d probably be better used as a long-man out of the bullpen, although that role might go to Jeff Karstens.
Vin Mazzaro - He’s got a career 5.22 ERA and a 4.86 xFIP in 286 innings. His best season was in 2010, when he had a 4.27 ERA and a 4.55 xFIP. He’s more of a 5th starter, or a 6th in a good rotation. He’s out of options, so he should compete for a bullpen spot in Spring Training.
Jeanmar Gomez - Gomez is very similar to Mazzaro. He’s got a career 5.18 ERA and a 4.58 xFIP in 206.2 innings. He’s a 5th/6th starter, and is also out of options. So he should be competing for a bullpen spot.
Andrew Oliver - Oliver has more upside than the previous guys on this list, but has dealt with some horrible control issues in his career. That’s probably because he was rushed from Double-A to the majors in his first pro season, leading to control problems in Triple-A and the majors ever since. The Pirates have an option on him, so he can go to Triple-A and try to work out his control issues in the rotation at the start of the season. That’s probably the best route to take, since he’s got more potential value as a starter than as a lefty reliever with control problems.
Justin Wilson - Wilson is very similar to Oliver. The key difference is that he’s dealt with control problems even at the lower levels, but has managed to put up strong minor league numbers even with the control. He’s got one of the better arms in the system, and the Pirates have tried to cut down on the walks the last two years. He should go to Indianapolis once again to try and cut down on the walks. He could be a lefty relief option, but the control problems are there in either role, and he’s got more potential upside as a starter.
Gerrit Cole - The big addition mid-season should be top prospect Gerrit Cole. The right-hander came into the system with problems elevating his fastball. The Pirates made some adjustments last year, and he did a better job of keeping the ball down, although he still has the tendency to elevate. He also had some control problems at the end of the year, and was hit hard in the Triple-A playoffs. He still has the upside of a number one starter, but will need a few months in Triple-A for more seasoning.
Charlie Morton - Morton is expected to return from Tommy John surgery around mid-season. He’s out of options, so he’ll have to be added to the majors when he returns. The sinkerball pitcher looked good in 2011, but regressed in 2012 before his surgery. The regression could have been due to the injury. The Pirates paid him $2 M, knowing he’d miss half the season. They must still believe he can bounce back. If he does, they have him under control through the 2014 season.
Phil Irwin - Irwin is kind of the mid-season emergency depth. He put up surprising numbers in Triple-A last year, with a 2.57 ERA/2.15 FIP in 21 innings, along with a 12.0 K/9 and a 3.0 BB/9. He profiles as more of a 5th starter in the majors, so he’s not going to be in the same situation as Cole, where the Pirates have to make room for him in the rotation. Irwin should serve as a depth option in 2014 or later, after several guys from the above lists are gone.
The Pirates don’t have a number one starter. They’ve got a few guys who could be number two starters in a weaker rotation. On the flip side, they don’t really have a number five starter. A lot of the guys competing for jobs have been putting up numbers in the #3-4 range. Guys like Burnett or Rodriguez look like strong number three starters or weaker number two starters when they’re at their best. Liriano is a huge wild card, and could be anywhere from a number two to a number five.
The rotation probably won’t add that number one starter until Gerrit Cole arrives, and it could take some time for Cole to settle in and reach that role. The strength of this rotation isn’t the quality at the top, but the depth in the middle. If the top five starters go down, the Pirates won’t be replacing them with guys like Mazzaro or Gomez. They’ll be replacing them with prospects who look like potential number 3-4 starters, or guys like Jeff Karstens, who puts up numbers like a strong number four, or a league average number three when healthy.
Most teams use 8-9 starters throughout a season. Looking at the list above, the ninth starter appears to be in the Charlie Morton/Jonathan Sanchez range. Those two are similar in that they both had decent seasons in 2011, but both struggled — possibly due to their injuries — in 2012. Both could be bounce back guys, and the Pirates only need them to bounce back in case of emergencies.
The flip side to this depth in the middle is that the Pirates need all of their starters to perform up to expectations. The reality is that they’re not going to be making any quick switches. If a guy is struggling in April, he’s probably not getting removed from the rotation until mid-May, due to small sample sizes. That could be earlier for some players. If Wandy Rodriguez struggles, he would probably have a longer leash. If Jeff Locke struggles and someone like Kyle McPherson is doing well in Triple-A, I could see him having a shorter leash. If the Pirates use their depth, that means they either suffered an injury, or had a period where a starter was playing below expectations. It’s not a problem to have a rotation full of 2-4 guys, but those rough stretches hit you harder than they would if you have an ace who can counter the poor outings.
The Pirates definitely have a lot of quality options. Some of those are safer bets. Some are unproven prospects. Some are bounce back candidates. They have the makings of a good rotation. It’s just a question of how soon they settle in on the best five starters from the bunch.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. The 2013 Annual is also available for pre-sales. Go to the products page of the site and order your 2013 books today!