Spring Training 2013 Position Battles: The Rotation

With pitchers and catchers reporting today, and Spring Training starting up this week, we will be previewing the position battles to follow throughout the Spring. To keep track of the players who are in camp, and the updated status of each position battle, check out the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training Tracker.

The Pirates have done a lot since the trade deadline to address the starting rotation. They acquired Wandy Rodriguez at the trade deadline, gave Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson a look in September, and added Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez and a few other depth options over the off-season. The top three spots in the rotation will be held by A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald. That leaves several of the above pitchers fighting for the final two spots.

Contenders: Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez

Francisco Liriano – If Liriano is healthy for Opening Day, he will get one of the open spots in the rotation. That’s not a guarantee. Tom Singer reports that it could be a month before Liriano steps on a mound. Last year we saw A.J. Burnett delayed at the start of Spring Training, and he had to start the 2012 season on the 15-day disabled list. Liriano would be unlikely to make the Opening Day roster if he can’t get on the mound earlier.

Jeff Locke will be battling for a rotation spot in Spring Training.
Jeff Locke will be battling for a rotation spot in Spring Training.

Jeff Locke/Kyle McPherson – I think these two will compete for the final spot in the rotation, regardless of whether Liriano is healthy. Locke is ready for the majors, and has the upside of a number four starter. He’s appeared in the majors in each of the last two seasons, but both times came at the end of the year. It will be interesting to see how he performs with some experience under his belt, and while he’s fresh at the start of the year, rather than after he pitches a full season in Triple-A. McPherson made a few starts in Triple-A last year, then three starts in the majors. He had some good results, but might need a bit more time in Triple-A. He’s also dealt with shoulder issues over the last year. The most recent issue came in the Dominican Winter League. He was throwing off a mound yesterday, so his health shouldn’t be an issue at this point. McPherson has more upside than Locke, but might have a bit more to prove in Triple-A.

Jeff Karstens – The Pirates non-tendered Karstens earlier in the off-season, then brought him back in January on a one year deal. The right-hander has been good when healthy, but has had issues staying healthy. Last year he made 15 starts and pitched 90 innings. I think that would be the expected level for his 2013 performance. Anything over 15 starts or 90 innings would be a bonus. Karstens could reach those totals by serving as a 6th starter, injury replacement, or a spot starter throughout the year. I could see him stepping in the rotation for a few turns at the start of the year if Liriano starts off on the disabled list.

Jonathan Sanchez – The Pirates added Sanchez on a minor league deal last week. He’s coming off a horrible season in which he had issues with biceps tendonitis. He was a good pitcher the previous three seasons. If he’s beyond the injury, and can return to the 2009-2011 numbers, he’d provide a lot of value under a minor league deal. I’d expect him to go to Triple-A to start the year, where he can prove that he’s beyond his 2012 struggles. If he can do that, he’d emerge as a top candidate to step into the rotation when the Pirates need an extra starter.

Projected Rotation: A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, Jeff Karstens (Francisco Liriano 15-day DL)

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Matt Beam

What do the Pirates do about Gerrit Cole’s innings this year, especially if he’s called up and we’re in contention in Sept?

He threw 132 IP last year so conventional wisdom says to limit him to probably 160-170 IP this year, which could be an issue in a pennant race. Jameson Taillon is in a much better position one year behind, threw 142 IP last year and could theoretically get called up mid 2014 and throw closer to 200 IP

Becky Alcorn

The so-called “Verducci Effect” has been thoroughly debunked. Its not the number of innings but the stress incurred during the outings. If you keep them on short leashes in games they will be fine.

Matt Beam

So you think the Pirates will let him throw 200 IP if it comes to it?


It won’t come to it because he will be on strict 100 pitch count with max pitch per inning limits (like everyone else in the system). He’ll be lucky to hit 180 is everything goes well.

Lee Young

That all sounds about right.



I sure would prefer that they let KMac and Locke duke it out in April in the MLB rotation, then the loser heads to AAA when Liriano returns (or by then another spot may open, you never know).


j: You know I have been a fan of Kyle McPherson from the day they drafted him – in fact I thought that Watson and he were steals in the 9th and 14th Rounds that year. In 2011 he was lights out at Hi A and AA, but last year he was good at AA with an awesome 46k/5W ratio, but he only pitched 18 innings at AAA before coming up in Sep. The 18 innings were excellent, but I think he can benefit from starting at AAA and then being ready to join the SP or RP ranks around the All Star Break.

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