Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Preview: The Starting Rotation

The Pirates starting rotation shaped up to be a battle for one spot, but Jeff Karstens started having shoulder problems. Karstens appears likely on his way to a spot on the disabled list to start the season, which opened up another place in the rotation.

A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald have all been penciled in in the top three spots for a while now, and word came in the middle of the week that Jonathan Sanchez would be Pittsburgh’s No. 4 with Jeff Locke in as the fifth starter. With Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Karstens available to step in after missing the start of the season with injuries, depth does not appear to be problem.

A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett

A.J. Burnett

Burnett is scheduled to be the Opening Day starter for the Pirates coming off a pretty good first season in Pittsburgh . His 3.51 ERA was his lowest since 2007 when he was with Toronto, and he had his first 200-inning season since 2009.

He’s 36, so a return to his production during his time with the Blue Jays is a bit far fetched but if Burnett sets the pace for the rest of the staff with numbers comparable to what he did last season it would go a long way toward the pitching staff doing its part to put the club in position to contend in the National League Central. On the flip-side of that, however, is the fact that Burnett is 36. If he regresses back into the pitcher he was his last two seasons with the Yankees, a lot will be asked of those back of the rotation guys to get the quality innings the team will need. The Pirates are only on the hook for slightly less than half of Burnett’s $16,500,000 salary (the Yankees will pay $8.5 M) and while the team waits on Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to mature into big league roles, Burnett seems like a good guy to have around.

Wandy Rodriguez

Rodriguez has been a workhorse with no less than 190 innings pitched in each of the last four seasons. Much like Burnett, if he can stay healthy and keep that pace in 2013 it will go a long way toward helping the Pirates chances of contending. Clint Hurdle mentioned how squeezing innings out of his top two starters can help put the Pirates in positions to win games.

“The guys that crunch numbers within the game, it all goes back to using your bullpen when you want to, and not when you have to. You’ve got to get innings out of your starting pitching,” he said. “If you look at the teams that play late, get innings out of their starting rotation. It’s not the quality start. That’s not what you’re looking for. You’re looking for guys with seven ups and downs and give you a chance to win and keep you in a ball game. And throw 100 pitches on any given night and can go above that. They’re horses, and those two guys have done it.”

Rodriguez has proven himself to be that kind of pitcher. He was the anchor in the starting rotation for some terrible Houston teams. He fired a gem for the Dominican Republic against Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, allowing just two hits and no runs in six innings of work to help get a 2-0 win. Starts of that caliber are the kind Hurdle will hope for to help give the bullpen a break.

Rodriguez’s strikeout numbers have dropped each year since posting a career-high 193 punchouts in 2009. He carries a career ERA slightly above 4 (4.03, to be exact) but hasn’t had an ERA that high in a single season since 2007.

It does not seem likely that either Rodriguez or Burnett are going to have Cy Young-type seasons at the top of the Pirates rotation (and if that’s where your expectations are, well, good luck with that), but with the team poised to break out after consecutive seasons of hard lessons learned then the value of what they bring to the club cannot be understated. Both guys are veterans that can provide stability and even do some teaching with a deep but ultimately inexperienced pitching staff.

James McDonald

McDonald, one could argue, is the biggest question mark in the rotation. During the first half of 2012 he was one of the Pirates best pitchers, but in the second half he was wildly inconsistent and was bumped out of the rotation and into the bullpen.

McDonald’s 4.21 ERA last season matched a career-worst he set the previous season, but on the whole his walks were down and his strikeouts were up.

Tim went into detail about the J-Mac dilemma back in February:

Prior to his implosion, McDonald had a 2.37 ERA in 110 innings, with a 100:31 K/BB ratio. In the first half of the season he looked like an ace. It was like someone flipped a switch at the All-Star break and turned him into a 4-A starter for the second half.

If we go back a bit further, McDonald had a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings in 2011, with a 142:78 K/BB ratio. He had a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings in 2012, although his xFIP was worse in 2011 (4.46 vs 4.21). He saw slight improvements in his strikeouts, walks, and home runs. His BABIP in 2012 was lucky (.269 vs .302 in 2011) and his LOB in 2012 dropped to around the league average of 70.8%.

Looking only at the second half of McDonald’s 2012 season, and assuming that’s what we can expect going forward, is the wrong approach. Saying that McDonald shouldn’t be guaranteed a rotation spot because of that second half ignores the larger sample of results. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t say McDonald could be an ace this year because of his first half. He was two different pitchers, each for half a season, and neither version defines him going forward.

What we can expect going forward is probably closer to the overall results. The last two years he had a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings both times. Last year his advanced metrics lined up exactly with that 4.21 ERA. So if you’re putting expectations on McDonald for the 2013 season, that’s probably a good place to start. He probably won’t have a hot and cold season like he did in 2012 to get there. He also could end up better or worse than those numbers, but the 4.21 range is the most likely scenario.

There’s not much I can add here, so let’s move on.

Jonathan Sanchez

The Pirates were put in a tough spot when Karstens’ shoulder opened up a spot in the Opening Day rotation. Pittsburgh added Jonathan Sanchez to the roster earlier this week to fill the No. 4 spot.

He’s coming off what, to put it bluntly, was a terrible year. He started 2012 with Kansas City before being moved to Colordado. His combined ERA of 8.07 in 15 appearances (he threw just 64.2 innings last season) jumps out as a red flag. Sanchez turned 30 last November, and while he seems like a prime target to be replaced when the injured starters start to come back, the hope should be that he can approach his form from 2010 when he won 13 games with a 3.02 ERA and a 9.5 K/9 ratio. Digging yourself a hole early in the season with poor pitching is something every team wants to avoid. With depth not a long term problem for the Pirates’ staff, anything good they can get out of Sanchez early in the season is a positive.

Jeff Locke

Of the Pirates’ projected starting pitchers, Locke is the baby of the group. He’s 25 and came to Pittsburgh as part of the Nate McLouth deal with Atlanta (along with Morton). He only has 51 big league innings on his resume and has show consistency in camp. Locke struck out three in six innings with no runs allowed and no walks in Pittsburgh’s final Grapefruit League game against the Yankees on Thursday.

The argument could be made that Kyle McPherson had a better camp than Locke, but for the time being, Locke is the No. 5 starter. Stay tuned.



A few housekeeping items:

– In yesterday’s preview of the infield, I mentioned that the Pirates needed to sign Neil Walker to a long-term deal when in reality he’s not eligible to be a free agent until 2017. That’s on me for doing a poor job of reading the contract information.

– The plan is still to have one preview each day. As with the infield and starting rotation I’ll be doing short primers on each of the projected starters. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the outfield and Sunday I’ll have a piece on the bench players. Tim will handle our preview of the bullpen.

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Lee Young

“The argument could be made that Kyle McPherson had a better camp than Locke, but for the time being, Locke is the No. 5 starter. Stay tuned.”

I’d love to see that. Locke CLEARLY outpitched Kyle.

Lee Young

McPherson–22.1 innings 30 hits 21 ER 5 HR 1.567 WHIP

Locke 27.1 innings 26 hits 8 ER 1 HR 1.244 WHI


Tom: Totally disagree with you backing off calling for the Pirates to sign Neil Walker long term. It is what the smart teams do rather than wait until the relationship gets testy. Neil is a Super Two meaning he qualified for Arbitration after only 2 years rather than the usual three. When he hits Free Agency, he will be in his prime at age 31. He has been an excellent defensive 2B hitting and has averaged .280, 30 doubles, 12 HR’s, and 72 RBI’s over the 3 years he has been in the majors. ‘Cutch was a solid part of the Foundation, and this kid is the same – unless we have not seen enough over the first 3 years? He already has $3 mil in his first year of Arb – so, how about 5 years (3 Arb, 1st two of FA) for around $37 mil, and a Club Option for the 6th year.

The Green Weenie

First, 31 is past a players prime, which generally occurs around age 27-28, so we are actually getting him in his prime now. Yet, Walker is an average to below averaged defensive second baseman and an average to above average hitting second baseman. In other words he roughly average or maybe a wee bit better than average. Looking the stats from 2010-2012 (ie the course of his career) Walker ranks 17th out of 17 qualifying second basemen when it comes to fielding (UZR)


and 7th when it comes to batting (wRC+)


I’m willing to give him somewhat of a pass on the fielding stats because they incorporate the beginning of his mlb career when he was still learning the position, but fielding statistics need large sample sizes (3 years) to stabilize. Still even if you look only at last year he only ranked 15th, therefore no matter how you cut it the description “excellent defensive 2B” is far too generous.

He’s a nice player, a good team player, and I would like to see the Bucs keep him around. The thing is they don’t have to sign him to a long term extension to do that. Go to arbitration and/or pay him through his arb years and wait until he hits free agency, if other teams throw boatloads of cash at an aging average to above average 2B so be it, hopefully by that point Hanson or better yet Herrera will be ready to step in. Or the Bucs could resign him then to a nice contract then. The savings (ie reward) of a long term extension is not worth the risk (injury, age related regression, overpaying a middling infielder). Smart teams give long term extensions to young (think 21 or 22), projectionable players in order to capture their prime years that coincide with their free agency; not older players in the midst of the prime with arbitration years to spare.

Finally, to compare Cutch to Walker as franchise building blocks as in “this kid is the same” is utterly ridiculous. Cutch is arguably one of the 5 to 10 best players in all of baseball; Neil Walker is arguably NOT one of the 5 to 10 best 2B in all of baseball and 2B might be the weakest position in the sport.


This rotation reminds me of the 60’s Pirate rotation and the 71 rotation, not in a class with some of the other rotations around the league on paper, but this one looks to me like the grinder kind of rotation, they could beat anyone, but they could lose to anyone.
Looking around baseball there are a lot of teams that don’t go more than 3 deep in starting rotation quality. If you break down the Reds for example, Arroyo and Leak don’t impress me at all, IMO, that makes the Reds a 3 deep starting pitching staff, the question is how much better are the 3 at the top of the Reds staff than the Pirates 3 at the top? The top 3 for both teams can take it into the 7th and 8th innings, where I think the Reds would then have the advantage.
What I like about this rotation is they should keep the Pirates in games, I don’t expect very many shutouts, but I think this team can score runs once the weather warms up.

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