Yesterday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates had Jeff Karstens throwing four innings as the starter in a AAA game at Pirate City. Today, Brian Burres took the mound at McKechnie, throwing five innings. Manager Clint Hurdle said this afternoon that the Pirates are trying to stretch both pitchers out incase they need a plan B along the line. That plan B could be needed sooner, rather than later.
James McDonald is currently rehabbing from a side injury he sustained on March 11th. McDonald pitched a bullpen session today, and if he feels better tomorrow he will be scheduled to throw in a minor league game on Saturday. However, the season is getting closer, and there might not be enough time for him to get stretched out. In his last start before the March 11th incident, McDonald only threw 2.2 innings. He left the game after two innings on March 11th. Even if he does return on Saturday, he will see maybe one additional outing before the season begins. That probably won’t be enough to get him fully stretched out.
In the past, the Pirates haven’t needed five starters in April, due to the off-days in the early part of the season. That’s not the case this year. The Pirates open the season with ten games in a row, enough for two full rotations. After an off-day, they play another 13 games in a row. It seems unlikely that McDonald will be ready in the next week, which means that the Plan B of Karstens and Burres could very well take place.
That puts the projected starting rotation as Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, and either Karstens or Burres. That rotation is largely the same as the 2010 rotation that ranked as one of the worst in baseball. There are a few differences. There’s the addition of Correia, and the removal of Zach Duke, which provides a minor upgrade. Ross Ohlendorf has the chance to be healthy all season. Charlie Morton has looked much improved this Spring. But McDonald was the best piece in the rotation at the end of the 2010 season, and his loss is a huge one.
That does raise the question about whether the Pirates will seek a replacement, especially with some of their other options struggling this Spring. Kevin Slowey was recently made available by the Minnesota Twins, who are looking for relief pitching in exchange for the starter. Slowey is coming off a year where he put up a 4.45 ERA in 28 starts and 2 relief appearances. In that time he had a 6.7 K/9 and a 1.7 BB/9 ratio. Slowey is 26 years old, and has just over three years of service time. His results in that time frame have been mixed, with a 3.99 ERA in 27 starts in 2008, and a 4.86 ERA in an injury shortened season in 2009. His advanced numbers look good, with a career 4.32 xFIP.
The Twins are looking for relief, which most likely means the Pirates would have to give up one of Joel Hanrahan or Evan Meek to land the starter.
The Pirates’ rotation looks very similar to the 2010 rotation, but only in the short term. In the not-so-long term, McDonald will be back, and the Pirates should see guys like Rudy Owens and Bryan Morris get a shot at the majors, with Brad Lincoln also likely to get another crack at the big leagues this year. That’s not to say that the Pirates are in a position where they don’t need to be adding any talent. Until they have a rotation that doesn’t rank at the bottom of the majors, they can’t rule out adding any potential upgrades.
An upgrade to the rotation in this case isn’t free. It’s all about opportunity cost. The most likely option to replace McDonald, if McDonald is not ready to start the 2011 season, would be Karstens. That’s especially true after today’s outing from Burres, who lacked command and left the ball up in the zone. Karstens had a 4.92 ERA last year, mostly working as a starter. Looking at the opportunity cost of adding a guy like Slowey, the Pirates would have to trade a top reliever in order to upgrade from Karstens to Slowey. Karstens had a 4.46 xFIP last year, while Slowey had a 4.48 xFIP. That’s only a one year sample, and represents the worst year in Slowey’s career, but the question still remains as to whether Slowey is a big enough upgrade to warrant trading one of the late inning relievers.
Personally, I would make the deal. That’s mostly because I’m a fan of Kevin Slowey. He gets decent strikeout numbers and doesn’t walk many batters. I wouldn’t make the deal for any short term reasons, like keeping Karstens out of the rotation. I’d make it for the long term reasons. If Slowey were to turn his numbers around with the Pirates (not that his numbers have far to go) he would become a very valuable member of the rotation, and would be worth more as a starter to a team like the Pirates than Joel Hanrahan would in his best season as a closer. I like Slowey enough that I think he could have that type of success if he moved to the National League.
That doesn’t mean the Pirates share the same value of Slowey. In fact, Ken Rosenthal mentions that the Twins might have trouble dealing the right hander, which indicates that most teams feel the opportunity cost of adding Slowey isn’t worth it.
With James McDonald injured, and Brian Burres/Jeff Karstens looking like a plan B that will be called on at the start of the season, the Pirates have some issues again with their starting rotation. However, unlike last year, there is help on the way. McDonald will be back, and the Altoona pitchers should start arriving in June. From there, the Pirates have to determine if any upgrades would be needed, and how much they could afford to give up for those upgrades.