I am going to keep this brief but I wanted to give my thoughts on the A.J. Burnett trade. My original thought process was that he would be a good pickup if his acquisition met two criteria: 1) The Pirates ended up picking up 12 million or less of the remaining money and 2) The Pirates only give up a prospect I’d consider at most mildly intriguing (as you of may know mildly intriguing is a C grade in my prospect grading system). Well the Pirates actually failed to met either criteria but just barely. They gave up 13 million and two prospects I categorized as mildly intriguing. Even at that price I believe the Pirates got decent value in Burnett.
He is not as bad as his numbers the last two seasons and coming to Pittsburgh should improve his numbers. Pittsburgh is a lower pressure situation, he should be facing weaker lineups and he will be playing in a home park that is much more pitcher friendly. It should be noted he pitched worse away than at home last season but I don’t put too much stock in that. Burnett had an unreal 17% HR/FB rate that should definitely drop this season which will also help him improve over last season’s number. Also his xFIP of 3.86 last season was good for 67th out of the 137 starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. What that means is that when you attempt to remove luck from the situation Burnett was a very viable number three starter last season. That is exactly what I see from Burnett giving the Pirates this season.
At 35 years old Burnett’s days of being one of the best pitchers in the league are behind but he can still do some things well. Burnett misses bats, throws a lot of innings and according to every account I have heard he is willing to work with young pitchers and does a pretty good job at it. When all the dust settles I think it will wind up that the Pirates got a pitcher who will end up throwing 180-200 innings, striking out just shy of a batter an inning and supporting an ERA just a little north of 4 (I’ll take a wild stab and say 4.18). If Burnett does provide this kind of performance and also helps teach the younger pitchers he will prove to be a good #3 for the Pirates who will help take some stress off the bullpen.
Overall I see this as a good move for the Pirates for the 2012 season. For 2013 I’m a little more unsure but with Correia and Bedard coming off the books the Pirates are going to need starting pitching and even if they do have a lot of young players step up if Burnett performs like I think he will the Pirates should be able to move him at his new rate fairly easily. Bottom line the team is better today because Burnett is on it and since this move should really have no long range affect on the Pirates that is all that should matter.
Erik Bedard: Signed this offseason to a 1 year 4.5 million dollar contract Bedard instantly becomes the Pirates most talented pitcher. Bedard’s “stuff” is that of a high end number #2 starter but he comes with the downside of a long injury history. From 2008 through 2012 Bedard only pitched 164 major league innings of baseball. He is coming off a 129.1 innings performance from last year though. It would be foolish to expect a full season of work from Bedard but if the Pirates can get similar numbers from last season (20-25 starts; 8+ K/9: 3.6 ERA) he would be well worth the price they paid for him and that is basically what I am expecting.
A.J. Burnett: Burnett, the newest addition to the Pirates staff. His acquisition has been much debated during the week long process it took to acquire him. Some say he has lost it others expect him to rebound. Me? I think the Pirates could have gotten him for less but I think he will prove to be worth the price they paid. I don’t see him becoming a top of the rotation starter but I can see him pitching 180-200 innings, striking out nearly a batter an inning and having an ERA in the low 4s. His ability to eat innings will greatly help out the Pirates bullpen and by all accounts I’ve heard he works well with young pitchers so the Pirates have that going for them. Above all he adds depth and that is much needed.
James McDonald: McDonald is coming off what appears to be a poor showing in 2011 but in fact he did end up pitching better than his numbers indicate. After missing mostly all of spring training due to injury McDonald struggled to begin the season in April but rebound nicely posting an ERA below 4 for the months from May-August. I see McDonald being the Pirates breakout pitcher this season. This does not mean I see McDonald becoming an ace but rather I see him pitching 180 innings while compiling an ERA of around 3.80 and a strike out rate near 8 K/9.
Charlie Morton: Last year’s surprising breakout star finished the season with worse numbers than one would have expected. His season wasn’t bad by any stretch but he did struggle going down the stretch and especially had trouble getting lefties out. Coming into this season the main concerns about Morton is sustaining his success and improving against left handers. I have little doubt that he will succeed in doing both this season but to what extent? I don’t see him regressing to his 2012 numbers and I do see him improving against left handed hitters but on the flip side I see right handed hitters faring better against him and I see him slipping mildly. There is an injury concern here to start the season but I see that becoming a non issue by May. I do not see great things from Morton but I see a solid season with an ERA around 4.00.
Jeff Karstens: Ah, Kartsens. What to say about him? He is everyone’s pick to seriously regress this season and while that probably will happen I think most people are going a little too far with it. Karstens can pitch, always could, he is the type of guy you want on your staff either as a back of the rotation starter or as a utility pitcher in the bullpen. I see no way he keeps his ERA below 3.5 again this year but I don’t see him bombing out of the rotation. I must admit Karstens is a favorite of mine and I have always been rooting for him with that being said my outlook is not just based in that but rather his performance. Karstens got lucky last season but his xFIP was still 4.00; that isn’t great but that isn’t horrible either. I see Karstens falling back to earth and settling in as the Pirates #5 meaning an ERA in the 4.20 range.
Kevin Correia: Correia started the season on a hot streak last year, leading the league in wins through the first few months. He was the face of the new found Pirate road warrior approach at the beginning of last season. Truth be told he is not as good as he started last season and we seen that in his late season collapse but he is also not as bad as his late season collapse. All offseason Pirate fans have been talking about getting him out of the rotation and with the acquisition of A.J. Burnett it appears the Pirates have done that. However Correia is still going to be counted on to start a lot of games. Injuries and underperformance are all going to come into play and force the Pirates to send someone else out to the mound. Correia has an option left but due to his experience would have to give his consent to be sent to AAA, he may give it knowing staying with the Pirates is his best chance at starting but if he doesn’t he would make a good long man / spot starter out of the bullpen. I expect another replacement level year.
Brad Lincoln: Once a highly regarded pitching prospect Lincoln has fallen from grace but he still appears as if he could be a useful player. Coming in is as a depth starter once again, Lincoln will almost assuredly find himself called upon sometime this season, possibly even early on. He comes with a little upside but at this point Lincoln looks like little more than possible a very solid #4 starter. Lincoln should start the season in AAA and while he doesn’t need any more experience there he will be there for major league depth purposes. Lincoln will get a chance to prove himself this season and I think he will do a respectable job. He won’t post great numbers but I see an ERA in the 4.5 area. He will pitch well enough to give the Pirates some confidence in him possibly making one of Karstens/Morton/McDonald expendable.
Jeff Locke: Despite the fact Locke came up late last season for a cup of coffee in the majors Locke is still a work in progress and needs more time in the minors. Locke appears to have a very limited upside at this point but conversely his floor looks like a back of the rotation starter, meaning there is value in him. To me Locke appears to be something of a Paul Maholm-lite. Once again I see nothing spectacular coming from Locke but if called upon he should do a respectable job in the majors.
Rudy Owens: Owens entered last season as the prospect that appeared closest to major league ready but after a strong first two months Owens hit a rough patch and was passed up by Jeff Locke. Owens is still a talented pitcher and could very well help the Pirates at some point this season but it is apparent he still has some work to do. He has a higher upside than Locke but he also comes with slightly more risk. I have always been a fan of how Owens pitching and I see him coming through with a strong season in AAA and getting a chance in the majors. By the end of the season I could see him passing both Locke and Lincoln on the depth chart.
Others: If the Pirates need another starter outside of the ones I discussed hopefully it will be late enough in the season that a prospect like Kyle McPherson is ready. If not the Pirates will likely be forced to turn to a pitcher like Daniel McCutchen, Jo-Jo Reyes, Daniel Cabrera or Shairon Martis. McCutchen I will discuss amongst the relievers as he is likely to start the season there either in the majors in AAA. Reyes will also probably be given a chance to win a bullpen job because of the Pirates dearth of left handed relievers but he has been a barely passable spot starter so the Pirates could turn to him if needed. Cabrera is probably well past his time of usefulness but if he shows something down in AAA he too could be in a line for a spot start. The most intriguing of all the last ditch starting options available to the Pirates is Shairon Martis. Martis will begin the season having just turned 25 and actually has a little bit of upside. He pitched respectably in AAA in 2010 and was pretty good in AA last season. Martis will probably be nothing more than a spot starter but his slight upside makes him the best bet to be promoted should the need arise.
Gerrit Cole: Cole is universally considered one of the Pirates top 2 prospects. He has yet to throw a major league pitch but due to his pedigree and the fact he is coming out of a high profile college Cole is expected to move through the system quickly and make an impact on the majors some time during the 2013 season. As for the 2012 season it appears Cole will start the season in A+ but it is my thinking that it may just be to have him skip the early season cold weather in Altoona. I would not be at all surprised and in fact I am expecting Cole to be promoted to AA around Memorial Day. Expectations are high for Cole this season I do not think he will disappoint.
Jameson Taillon: Taillon is the other prospect who is universally regarded as one of the Pirates top two prospects. He is a similar player to Cole but is a behind him in his development because he came out of high school. There were questions last year about how the Pirates handled Taillon in A ball last season but I think they did the right thing by just easing him to pro ball; this is the season where they need to loosen the reigns a little bit. Like Cole, Taillon will likely start the season in A+ but unlike Cole a quick promotion to AA is probably not in the cards. The Pirates are likely going to take it a little slow with Taillon and let him spend most if not all of the season in A+. I think Taillon is going to have a good season but I think his overall line is going to disappoint people, as I have said before the Pirates A+ team, the Bradenton Marauders play in a hitter friendly stadium so I expect his numbers to suffer slightly.
Luis Heredia: Heredia might have the highest upside of any Pirate pitching prospect but at 17 years old he is very raw and very far from the majors. His numbers last year may not look too impressive but if you stop and consider the fact he was essentially a high school sophomore pitching in a pro league they begin to look fairly good. The Pirates are going to proceed cautiously with Heredia so expect him to start the year in extended spring training and then be assigned to short season ball. Short season ball is usually where just drafted college players go so the level of competition he will see there should be a good test for him. At this stage in his development it is too early to say what will be a successful season just by statistics alone but nevertheless I am expecting a good showing from Heredia in short season ball this year.
Kyle McPherson: Of all the Pirates top pitching prospects McPherson is the closest to being major league ready. After putting up very strong numbers in A+ last year McPherson was promoted to AA and continued to pitch well. His upside is not as high as the other top pitching prospects but his close proximity to the majors makes him the safest bet to make an impact in the majors. McPherson will likely start the season in AAA and could be ready for the majors by mid season. I don’t expect him to put up dominating numbers from the start but I see him settling down as the year progresses and putting up a solid season. The Pirates have a few other options in Owens and Locke who will likely get a chance before McPherson so I don’t expect to see him in the majors until September.
Nicholas Kingham: Often overlooked Kingham was the Pirates 4th round pick in the 2010 draft. At the time he was overshadowed by fellow draft picks Taillon and Allie however that changed last season when Kingham put up dominating numbers in short season ball. After last season’s strong showing Kingham is now considered a borderline top 10 prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. He will likely start this upcoming season in A ball and it will be interesting to follow him and see how he performs. Kingham has a good bit of upside and could one day develop into a top of the rotation starter but he still has a good ways to go in his development. There is no reason to assume his numbers last year were not legit so I am expecting a strong showing from Kingham this year and I could see him as a candidate for the Pirates minor league pitcher of the year.
Colton Cain: Cain is one of the many high upside project-able high school arms the Pirates took in the 2009 draft. At the time he was drafted he was considered by most to be the second best of all the arms but his performance since joining the organization has vaulted him over Zack Von Rosenberg and he is now the most highly regarded prospect of the group. Cain will likely move up to A+ this season and along with the rest of the pitchers the Pirates took in his draft class this could be a very telling year in whether Cain is a legit prospect or nothing more than organizational filler. My expectations is for Cain to post a good season; it won’t be enough for him to appear as a top prospect but enough for him to look like he could be a solid major league contributor one day.
Summary: This year’s Pittsburgh Pirates rotation is probably the best the team has had in a few years. There is no true ace amongst the Pirates options for this season but there are no obvious black holes either. I think the best way to sum it up is the Pirates starting rotation will scare no one, opposing fans or Pirate fans alike. While it seems possible this year’s rotation will be the best in a long time for the Pirates, brighter days are ahead. The Pirates minor leagues are filled with quite a few high upside pitchers and if just a few of them reach their potential the Pirates will have a dominating rotation in the years come. In summary the Pirates rotation is improving and there is little reason to think that it will not continue to improve; this is one of the Pirates biggest strengths.