The Pirates essentially finalized their 25 man roster earlier today. Technically speaking there are still a few additional players in camp but all of them are expected to begin the season on the DL. Overall the roster is constructed in a very expected manner and while it is not how I would have went about doing it most of the decisions are at least somewhat understandable. There are always going to be people who complain about the fringes of the 25 man roster but at the end of the day those fringes really do not matter much, it is the core of the team and the overall depth (bench, bullpen and minor leagues) that will determine the fate of a team. The 5th starter, the 5th bench spot and the 7th reliever are not really positions that will dramatically alter the course of a team so the overreaction to the Pirates decisions on those roster spots is likely overblown. With all that in mind let’s take a look at how the Pirates roster looks headed into Opening Day.
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Clint Barmes
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Travis Snider
BN: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata, John McDonald, Josh Harrison
SP: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke
RP: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez
In reality the only players I would remove from the roster if I was in charge of its construction would be McDonald, Harrison (eventually Inge) and Gomez. In their place I would prefer to see Mercer, De Jesus and Morris. The other change I would like to see made is swapping Wilson and J Sanchez. Wilson is younger and in my opinion more likely to be able to contribute to the rotation for a few starts while Sanchez at this point is probably best suited trying to turn his career around as a lefty reliever. Even these changes though are for the most part temporary. When Liriano comes back I would most likely opt to bump Wilson from the rotation, when Karstens comes back I would most likely opt to bump Morris from the bullpen and I can even understand the argument for wanting McDonald over De Jesus. I don’t get Harrison or Inge over Mercer though. I know Mercer can’t play the outfield while the other sort of kind of can but the Pirates have enough options where they shouldn’t be considering playing infielders in the outfield anyway. The other advantage Inge has is supposedly power but people seem to forget Mercer has a little pop in his bat as well, it was just 2011 when he lead the Pirates minor leagues in home runs. Still arguments over the last bench spot are basically trivial and irrelevant. I don’t get why the Pirates need two (or even one) veteran middle infielders on the bench who can’t hit but in reality the difference between them and the other options is most likely negligible.
With that rather long disclaimer out-of-the-way I figured now was as good as time as any to take a look at the players the Pirates have opted to bring north.
The starting infield is what we expected it to be all along. Russell Martin behind the dish will be counted on to provide solid defense and hopefully will produce somewhere in the vicinity of league average offense from the catcher position. The Pirates likely overpaid for him but if his superior pitch framing skills are actually real and not just a product of catching for guys like C.C. Sabathia then there is a chance he lives up the contract or maybe even provides some surplus value. I’m not expecting much in terms of offense from him but if he can be non horrible and provide the Pirates with an OPS around .700 I would take it.
Garrett Jones likely won’t be playing full-time at first base but assuming the Pirates actually stick to regularly platooning him this season he should get about 70% of the starts. Jones is here for essentially one purpose, to provide the Pirates with relatively cheap power. The rest of Jones’ game is fairly unremarkable from his defense to his baserunning but he is a fair hitter with plus power. That doesn’t make him a super valuable piece but it makes him an asset in the middle of the order. On the hot corner will reside Pedro Alvarez. Like Jones, Alvarez could probably benefit by sitting against some left handers but hopefully the Pirates give him a chance to prove his worth against them. Also like Jones, Alvarez is here to provide the Pirates with some power but unlike Jones, Alvarez has enough power potential where he could develop into an extremely valuable piece. Alvarez is going to strike out too much and not play the best defense at third but if he can show a little more plate discipline, draw a few more walks and continue blasting home runs he is going to have a lot of value.
Up the middle Neil Walker figures to get nearly every start at 2nd base and assuming Inge takes Harrison spot he better be starting everyday as the Pirates really won’t have a viable alternative on the 25 man roster. He had some back problems near the end of last season which bares watching but in reality any injury to him would really hurt the Pirates. It is unclear whether Hurdle plans to use him near the top of the order or more towards the bottom but given the fact he is one of the few Pirates players with a decent knack for getting on base placing him near the top (or eve at the top) of the order would probably be the wisest decision. Up the middle with Walker is Clint Barmes. Barmes’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to field the shortstop position very well but even so he is going to have to improve upon last year’s numbers to be of much use to the Pirates. Over the last 4 months of 2012 Barmes posted an OPS of around .650 and if he is able to do that for an entire season he won’t be the most glamorous shortstop but he will give the Pirates value.
The starting outfield is pretty much what we expected all along. There was a quasi competition for the corner spots but for the most part those were basically just made up as it was rather clear who should be the starters. In center field the Pirates will once again have their superstar Andrew McCutchen. There really isn’t a whole lot to say about him. He is likely one of the best 10 players in the game today and in order for the Pirates to have any chance of competing he will need to perform at a MVP caliber level. McCutchen did have a few flaws last year though and hopefully this season he will improve upon them. Last season he struggled stealing bases and was a little on the weak side defensively. Considering the rest of his game these are minor points of course but shoring them up would only make him more valuable.
In the corners the Pirates will use Starling Marte and Travis Snider. I expect to see both of them rested, especially Snider, on a fairly consistent basis but they will both get a long chance to prove themselves. Marte has plus speed and is a great defender so even if he struggles with the bat this season he is likely to still provide the Pirates with value. By no means is Marte’s bat weak though as he has the potential to possibly be the Pirates second best hitter this season behind only McCutchen. Marte is likely going to be forced into the leadoff spot a role he isn’t really suited for since he has some strike out issues but if he can maintain a high average and show any improvement in plate discipline he should be serviceable there. In the other corner will be Snider. He doesn’t have the speed or defense of Marte so he is going to have to hit to create value. People tend to think him hitting is less likely than Marte hitting well but in reality I think its a pretty even race. Snider has shown flashes in the past and comes with more power potential than Marte. The Pirates in order to have a shot at competing probably need one of these two to break out and become a true plus player and the other one will have to at least hold his own and be an average starter.
As I have previously stated the construction of the bottom of the bench really doesn’t matter a whole lot but the players near the top of the bench will likely get a lot of playing time so they will matter a good deal. The top player on the bench is likely Gaby Sanchez and he is expected to pick up the 30% or so of the starts that Garrett Jones doesn’t get at 1st base. Ideally Sanchez would bounce back to his 2010-11 form but that doesn’t really seem likely. In reality all the Pirates need him to be is a good bat against LHP and a good PH option off the bench two roles I think he’ll have no problem handling. Jose Tabata could potentially wind up in a similar situation to Sanchez only in right field. It is possible he winds up platooning with Snider and if that is the case he too will have to hit very well against left handed pitching. Tabata has the upside for more though. At this point he isn’t likely to develop into your traditional starting corner outfielder but he has very good plate discipline and that alone has the potential to make him a valuable asset atop the order. His speed although it has been questioned is still above average and his defense is probably around average as well. Tabata has the makings of an OBP first starting corner outfielder or a solid 4th outfielder. He is likely to be the second most important bench player.
The third most important bench spot and the last I see with much value will go to Michael McKenry. As the backup catcher he is likely to get at least 60 starts this season and will need to continue hitting as well as he did last season to provide value in those starts. His defense is decent but often overrated by Pirates fans but his bat can make him a solid backup catcher. The last two spots are currently slated to go to Harrison and McDonald but Inge will likely eventually assume Harrison’s role. In my mind the most important of these spots is the Harrison/Inge spot. This is supposedly the offensive first infield bench spot so whoever holds it down is going to have to actually you know hit at a respectable level. McDonald will serve as Barmes backup and though he is probably a touch worse both offensively and defensively his presence in the lineup for a day here or there shouldn’t really cause a noticeable difference.
Right now the Pirates rotation is a bit of mess. At the top of it the Pirates have probably one of the best one-two punches they have had in a while in AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Neither one is a true ace but both seem like fairly safe bets to put up solid numbers this season. At 36 and 34 years old respectively there is of course the chance that either Burnett or Rodriguez has reached the end of their rope as pitchers but with how both of them pitched last year it seems likely they probably have another year or two of value left in them at least. Behind them is James McDonald who si the ultimate wildcard for the Pirates. If there is a true ace currently in the Pirates rotation it is James McDonald. McDonald showed us in the first half of the season last year that he has the talent to be a number one starting pitcher but he showed us in the second half of the year that he isn’t ready to be that yet and possibly never will be. What James McDonald the Pirates get this year, potential ace, borderline #5 starter or somewhere in between will probably be one of the biggest factors in how the Pirates season winds up.
Rounding out the rotation are a pitcher who amazingly actually has a wider range of possible outcomes than McDonald and a pitcher who looks like a fair bet to be a solid a back end guy but who has yet to prove it at the major league level. Jonathan Sanchez is another wildcard in the Pirates rotation but he is even less likely to pay off than McDonald. If Sanchez can keep his control problems at a minimum he will have an excellent chance of being a solid middle of the rotation starter for the Pirates but if he can’t he will most definitely be a total disaster. The Pirates really can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be expecting much from him. If Sanchez can give the Pirates 3 or 4 non-horrible starts in the month of April without completely exploding then it should be considered a success. The other pitcher Locke is a different story. Locke pitched exceptionally well in AAA last season but in his short stint in the majors was the victim of a very unlucky high home run rate. Assuming the high home rate drops this season which it will almost assuredly do I’m fairly confident Locke can become a solid #4 starter for the Pirates and mange to keep them in almost every game. He isn’t the flashiest pitcher but his performance in AAA has earned him this shot.
The back of the bullpen will consist of Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. These four actually make for a fairly solid quartet of arms. Grilli has been successful in a set up and middle relief role the last two seasons and will inherit the closer role this year. Melancon struggled last year in April and was sent down to the minors but when he returned to the majors he pitched pretty well The two of them , Grilli and Melancon, will likely be the Pirates 8th and 9th inning duo. By no means is this the best back end duo in the league but the tandem should be able to close out most leads that are handed over to them. Watson and Hughes were rather successful last season in their middle relief roles and will be counted on this season in later inning situations. Hughes will probably inherit the 7th inning role and Watson will continue being the top left handed releiver in the bullpen. The success of these two last year makes it fairly likely the adjustment should be relatively smooth.
At the front of the bullpen trying to bridge the gap to the back 4 guys will be Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux and Jeanmar Gomez. All 3 pitchers are capable of throwing multiple innings and all will likely be called upon to do so throughout the year. Wilson provides the Pirates with a second lefty and one who is more of a strike out pitcher. Leroux and Gomez will likely pick up most of the long relief duties. Both are out of options and one of them is likely to be released once pitchers began to get healthy so it will be sort of an extended competition for the duo. Leroux appears to have the more upside but Gomez has more major league experience. Leroux and Gomez are both fairly replaceable relievers so they will have to pitch well this season to remain with the team.
With only 11 days left until Opening Day I thought it was time to take my final crack at predicting which 25 guys the Pirates will take north with them.
Catchers: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry
Both Martin and McKenry are healthy and appear ready to begin the year. There has been some talk about the Pirates looking for a catcher but I imagine that would only be as a depth option for AAA. These two have been locks to make the team since Spring Training began and nothing has changed that.
1st Base: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez
Despite battling an injury early in the spring Jones now appears at full strength and should be ready to open the year as the Pirates regular 1st baseman. The plan all along this spring was to have Jones be the starter and for Gaby Sanchez to platoon with hm and pick up the starts against left handed starters. Sanchez has also been working out at third this spring and will hopefully be a viable alternative there.
2nd Base: Neil Walker
Fairly straight forward here. Walker is healthy and is the Pirates everyday 2nd baseman.
3rd Baseman: Pedro Alvarez
Again no rocket science here. Alvarez struck out a lot last season and has been struggling this spring but the Pirates have little choice but to let him have a shot at being an everyday or close to it 3rd baseman.
Shortstop: Clint Barmes, John McDonald
Before yesterday it wasn’t so clear just who would be backing up Barmes but the acquisition of McDonald clears things up quite a bit. Barmes will start on most days but when he needs a breather or is pinched hit for late in games McDonald will see some time in the field at shortstop.
Left Field: Starling Marte
Contrary to popular belief I don’t think Marte had a starting spot nailed down headed into Spring Training but from all reports he has looked great and his numbers have been solid so he will now undoubtedly as he should start the year as the everyday left fielder.
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen
Duh, who else would it be?
Right Field: Travis Snider, Jose Tabata
Some thought Sands or possibly Presley or even Hawpe may factor into right field mix at the beginning of Spring Training but it became fairly clear early on that the spot was Snider’s to lose and that in all likelihood Tabata would make the team as the 4th outfielder and split time with Snider in right taking most of the starts against left handed pitchers.
Starting Pitcher: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke
Burnett, Rodriugez and McDonald have long been assumed and nothing from this spring changes that. The three of them will form the Pirates top 3 going into the season. The last two spots have looked like a bit of mess all Spring Training as Liriano hasn’t been healthy at all and Karstens really hasn’t been either. Locke hasn’t exactly separated himself from the pack but he was a favorite for a job headed into spring training and no one has really over took him at this point.
Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux
Things have gotten a lot less settled in the Pirates bullpen in the last couple of days. Grilli, Melancon and Hughes were all assumed to essentially be locks since the beginning and nothing has changed on that front. Also considered near locks were Tony Watson and Bryan Morris bu Watson has only pitched sporadicly and Morris apparently has an option remaining meaning he could start in the minors without the Pirates having to risk losing him. Leroux is out of options and has had a pretty strong spring so I expect the Pirates to keep him on the roster and not risk losing him.
For those of you not keeping track at home that is only 20 players meaning there are still 5 spots available. These are the 5 that I think still come with some uncertainty.
Bench (1): Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Alex Presley, Felix Pie, Brad Hawpe, Jordy Mercer, Ivan De Jesus, Jared Goedert
At this point there is only one bench spot remaining and all the above players still vying for it. With the acquisition of McDonald I assume Mercer and De Jesus are out of the running. Non roster invitees Hawpe and Goedert seem like long shots and are unlikely to make the team. That leaves Harrison, Inge, Presley and Pie. I would prefer to see the Pirates use this last spot on the best offensive player but knowing how Huntington and Hurdle like to construct a roster I think this last bench spot is likely to go to an infielder with some versatility so that eliminates Presley and Pie. This final spot in my mind is down to Harrison and Inge. To date Inge has shown nothing tha hints he would be an asset to this team so I expect the Pirates will opt to carry Josh Harrison as the final bench player.
Rotation (1): Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeanmar Gomez
Before his disastrous start yesterday I would have said McPherson would get the last spot if Karstens wasn’t ready to go but now I’m not too sure. I still can’t imagine any scenario in which Gomez gets the nod but the Pirates are keeping Sanchez starting and have to make a decision on him by the 24th. I think there are serious doubts that Karstens will be ready by the start of the season but right now I’m still inclined to say he will take the last rotation spot.
Bullpen (3): Bryan Morris, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson, Ryan Reid, Mike Zagurski, Jonathan Sanchez
Although he still has an option remaining Bryan Morris remains in my opinion one of the Pirates strongest options for the bullpen so despite the fact there is now a chance he could start the year in the minors I still expect to see him as part of the bullpen on Opening Day. Watson has me legitimately concerned at this point and I am now leaning towards the idea of him not being ready by Opening Day and actually starting the season in the minors. I’m expecting the Pirates to carry two left handers in the bullpen to start the season regardless of Watson’s health so assuming everything breaks as I predict that leaves no room for Reid or Gomez and makes the final two spots a battle between Wilson, Zagurski and Sanchez. At this point I can’t see Sanchez making the team unless they opt to have him start in the rotation so my prediction is the final two spots will go to Wilson and Zagurski.
Lineup: Marte (LF), Walker (2B), McCutchen (CF), Alvarez (3B), Jones (1B), Martin (C), Snider (RF), Barmes (SS)
Bench: McKenry (C), Sanchez (1B-3B), McDonald (2B-3B-SS), Tabata (OF), Harrison (2B-3B-SS-OF)
Rotation: Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Locke, Karstens
Bullpen: Grilli (CL), Melancon (SU), Hughes, Morris, Leroux, Wilson (LH), Zagurski (LH)
With the news of Gerrit Cole being sent down today I’ve got to thinking about how good (or to be more accurate bad) the Pirates “ace” has been over the course of the 20 year losing streak. The first step to do this was to go about picking the Pirates ace from each season. I did this in a subjective way factoring in a bunch of different stats but one thing I did set as a constant was a minimum of 150 IP in a give year (this was adjusted down some for the shortened 1994 season to 120 IP). You can see the results below. Also to give an idea of how baseball as a whole pitched that year I have listed the pitcher’s ranking in terms of FIP and WAR (min 150 IP, 120 in 1994).
1993: Steve Cooke
Stats: 210.2 IP, 3.89 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 3.3 WAR
Rankings: 38th (WAR), 41st (FIP)
1994: Denny Neagle
Stats: 137.0 IP, 5.12 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 2.0 WAR
Rankings: 47th (WAR), 35th (FIP)
1995: Denny Neagle
Stats: 209.2 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 4.6 WAR
Rankings: 11th (WAR), 12th (FIP)
1996: Denny Neagle
Stats: 182.2 IP, 3.05 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 3.6 WAR *based on only his time with the Pirates
Rankings: 32nd (WAR), 20th (FIP) *based on only his time with the Pirates
1997: Francisco Cordova
Stats: 178.2 IP, 3.63 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 3.5 WAR
Rankings: 30th (WAR), 23rd (FIP)
1998: Francisco Cordova
Stats: 220.1 IP, 3.31 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 3.6 WAR
Rankings: 32nd (WAR), 33rd (FIP)
1999: Kris Benson
Stats: 196.2 IP, 4.07 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 3.7 WAR
Rankings: 27th (WAR), 22nd (FIP)
2000: Kris Benson
Stats: 217.2 IP, 3.85 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 4.0 WAR
Rankings: 24th (WAR), 24th (FIP)
2001: Todd Ritchie
Stats: 207.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 3.2 WAR
Rankings: 35th (WAR), 36th (FIP)
2002: Kip Wells
Stats: 198.1 IP, 3.58 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 2.5 WAR
Rankings: 56th (WAR), 46th (FIP)
2003: Kip Wells
Stats: 197.1 IP, 3.28 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 2.4 WAR
Rankings: 61st (WAR), 60th (FIP)
2004: Oliver Perez
Stats: 196.0 IP, 2.98 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 4.5 WAR
Rankings: 17th (WAR), 11th (FIP)
2005: Mark Redman
Stats: 178.1 IP, 4.90 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 2.2 WAR
Rankings: 69th (WAR), 52nd (FIP)
2006: Zach Duke
Stats: 215.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 3.3 WAR
Rankings: 42nd (WAR), 31st (FIP)
2007: Ian Snell
Stats: 208.0 IP, 3.76 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 3.5 WAR
Rankings: 35th (WAR), 32nd (FIP)
2008: Paul Maholm
Stats: 206.1 IP, 3.71 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 2.8 WAR
Rankings: 48th (WAR), 49th (FIP)
2009: Paul Maholm
Stats: 194.2 IP, 4.44 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.2 WAR
Rankings: 43rd (WAR), 32nd (FIP)
2010: Paul Maholm
Stats: 185.1 IP, 5.10 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 1.9 WAR
Rankings: 80th (WAR), 70th (FIP)
2011: Charlie Morton
Stats: 171.2 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 2.1 WAR
Rankings: 70th (WAR), 48th (WAR)
2012: AJ Burnett
Stats: 202.1 IP, 3.51 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.4 WAR
Rankings: 29th (WAR), 27th (FIP)
The numbers above pain a pretty gruesome picture. Only twice in the last twenty years did the Pirates have a pitcher rank in the top 20 of the league in both FIP and WAR. A lot of years the Pirates struggled to even get a player to crack the top 50 in both categories. AJ Burnett helped dramatically improve the Pirates standing last year by posting the best season from a Pirates starter since 2004 but even so the Pirates have a lot of room to go to catch up to the rest of the league. The Pirates will not be able to close that gap through external means so there only hope of doing so in the next two or three years lies squarely on the arms of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Yes it has been a little disappointing to see them both sent down this spring but both of them still need a little fine tuning before they are set loose. If things go right the Pirates in 2014 or 2015 could have two ace caliber seasons from Cole and Taillon matching their total from the last twenty years combined. There is a light at the end of the tunnel Pirates fans.
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
Burnett, who has already been named the opening day starter, is the clear unquestioned leader of the Pirates staff. Burnett isn’t quite as effective as your typical number one pitcher but is a significant upgrade from the number one starters the Pirates sent out there just a few seasons ago. Headed into last season he was coming off two rough seasons for the Yankees but he rebounded nicely compiling a very strong seasons. The Pirates and I’m sure fans are all hoping he can repeat his 2012 success in 2013 but realistically that doesn’t seem very likely to me. Burnett is getting up there is baseball years at 36 years old and while his 2012 season was nice he tailed off towards the end of the year. His campaign in 2012 did not appear to be exceedingly lucky so expecting a complete collapse back to his 2010-2011 years is probably unrealistic as well but still his 2013 numbers are likely to be worse than his 2012 ones. Last season Burnett managed to keep his walk rate below 3.0 BB/9 innings something he has rarely done in his career. I see Burnett still being a very strong rotation arm for the Pirates but the walks will likely increase and that will have the snowball effect which cause regression to set in. I’m seeing an ERA in the upper 3s, say around 3.90, a WHIP in the 1.30-1.35 range and strike out and walk ratios around 7.5 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 respectively. Last season Fan Graphs had him pegged as a 3.4 WAR player and he won’t reach that level in 2013 as I see him around a 2.5 WAR player with a maximum of a 3.0 WAR player.
Rodriguez has already been names the second man in the rotation and I think the Pirates will benefit from having for the entire season. Rodriguez has seen his strike out rates slip in the past few seasons and that coupled with his age of 34 years old is a definite red flag. Still he has managed to keep his numbers fairly steady and there is reason to believe he will continue to do. He isn’t a true #2 starter like the Pirates will be counting on him to be but he is a durable arm who should give the Pirates a lot of solid innings and that in itself has a lot of value. Rodriguez has been transforming himself the last couple of seasons from a power pitcher to more of a finesse one and he has been fairly successful and my expectation is that he will continue to be fairly successful. Overall I see a Rodriguez posting an ERA not to dissimilar to Burnett’s ERA. His ERA should be in the high 3 range around 3.8-3.9, his WHIP should remaining fairly steady around 1.30 and I see his strike out rate improving slightly to around 6.5 K/9 and his walk rate remaining strong at about 2.7 BB/9. Overall I see him having about the same value as Burnett meaning he should be about a 2.5 WAR player. I would say Burnett’s maximum performance for 2013 is better than Rodriguez’s but Rodriguez is probably the more dependable of the two meaning he has less of a chance to fall of a cliff this year.
Now we are not really in the top of the rotation but McDonald certainly has top of the rotation stuff. No single player was a better microcosm of the Pirates successes and failure in 2012. When McDonald was riding high so were the Pirates and when he fell apart the Pirates did as well. He is the ultimate variable for the Pirates pitching staff in 2013. His strong first half to the 2012 season suggests he could be the top of the rotation arm the Pirates need but his late season collapse suggests he could just be another AAAA arm. Chances are his value will fall somewhere in between. The last two seasons have seen McDonald post the exact same ERA of 4.21 so when predicting an ERA for 2013 it is hard not just to say that is about what he will do again in 2013 but then again there is such a wide array of possible outcomes for McDonald that it is impossible to know just exactly what he will do in 2013. Personally I’m expecting a more consistent pitcher who will pitch slightly better than his overall results from the last two years. The numbers won’t be a whole lot better but I think they will be better. Taking a stab at his statistics I think he’ll have an ERA around 4.10, a WHIP in the 1.30 range and ratios around 7.7 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 respectively. I think overall this will make him a nice middle of the rotation arm and that he should be worth approximately 1.5-2.0 WAR for the Pirates in 2013.
If there is a bigger wildcard for this pitching staff than James McDonald it is Liriano. Liriano, like McDonald, could wind up just about anywhere from Cy Young contender to a complete mess. There is also the added intrigue of the broken right arm which will likely cause him to miss the first month of the season. Still if you are looking for a high upside guy Liriano is most certainly that. All the projection systems I’ve seen seem to think he will do fairly well in Pittsburgh and by that I mean keeping his ERA in the high 3s to low 4s. In reality I don’t have the slightest clue what to expect from Liriano, however I will add I don’t see him completely blowing up and I think he’ll at least be a solid back of the rotation option for the Pirates but of course I’m hoping for more. I think on the low end we’ll see a 4.50 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.6 BB/9 type of seasons from Liriano and on the high end I think we could see a 3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.8 BB/9 type season from Liriano. I tend to think the low end has a better chance than the high end though. So lets split the difference and lean towards the low end and call for a 4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.3 BB/9 type season. I’m thinking that should put him somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5-2.5 WAR so again let’s go down the middle leaning toward the low side and call it 1.8 WAR.
With Jeff Karstens now back on the Pirates payroll there are 6 pitchers with a reasonable chance of starting the year in the major league rotation. They are A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. In addition to those six there are quite a few other players who could factor in at some point this season. There are a handful of pitchers who look like they could be non-horrible spot starting options in Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Zach Stewart but none of them would ideally be counted on. There is also the two reinforcements, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole, who will hopefully both be ready to help contribute by mid season. Then there is even Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver who have the stuff to be good starters if they can figure out their control. Finally the Pirates also have a stable of AAA pitchers who look like they should be ready to step up and make a handful of starts later in the year in Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and even Michael Colla. That is undoubtedly a lot of arms but I still believe the Pirates need to bring in another starter and I’ll explain why.
Let’s first take a look at the depth. A lot of the pitchers making up the Pirates depth, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and Michael Colla are going to probably need a couple of months before they would be ideally counted on to help the rotation. Two more Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver will need time to prove that they have improved their control before being ready to move up. What this means is that a lot of this depth will not be ready to help out should a problem arise in say April or May. Now with six starters ready to start the year that ordinarily wouldn’t be a huge deal but the Pirates have risk factors with all six of their starters.
Burnett – AJ will be 36 years old this upcoming season and had two poor seasons prior to his good year last season. A pitcher nearing his late 30s is always at risk of breaking down especially one with as much use on it as Burnett.
Rodriguez – At 34 years old Rodriguez isn’t as old as Burnett but there is a cause for concern as his strike out rate has been steadily dropping the last few seasons. The bottom really fell out in 2012 as he dropped from 7.8 K/9 to 6.1 K/9. He is going to need to show he can transition into being successful as a finesse pitcher.
McDonald – The biggest question mark of them all. Which McDonald is the real McDonald? Is he the Cy Young candidate we saw the first half of last year, the AA arm we saw in the second half or somewhere in between. A complete collapse can not be ruled out.
Karstens – The reason the Pirates didn’t offer Karstens arbitration was his injury history. Karstens has been a very consistent starter for the Pirates but the question is how long can he stay healthy? The Pirates really shouldn’t be counting on Karstens for more than about 120 innings max.
Locke – I feel pretty good about Locke but the issue with him is that he has no track record of big league success and has struggled when given his few chances. Locke has been a very successful AAA pitcher and while that probably should transition over to him being at least a solid 4/5 in the majors you never know until he actually does it.
McPherson – McPherson has had shoulder soreness twice in the past year and last time it cause him to miss a decent chunk of the season. Add in the fact that he has only made 3 starts at the AAA level and you have a pitcher who the Pirates should probably proceed cautiously with.
With all those question marks and the real possibility that a starter outside of those 6 might be needed the way the Pirates are currently constructed they would need to give the chances to one of the spot starter options in Gomez, Stewart, Leroux or Mazzaro. If those 4 are forced to make a combined 2-3 starts this year, ok stuff happens the team should be fine but if one of them is needed to move into the rotation in April or May it could very well likely signal bad things for the Pirates. For the Pirates and all teams really one of the most important keys is depth in the rotation and while that is coming for the Pirates it isn’t there yet. Ideally come midseason the Pirates will have a surplus to trade for needs in other areas or will be able to convert some starters into bullpen arms but you can’t go on expecting the ideal the Pirates need to prepare for the very real possibility that they may need an extra arm to help the rotation get through April and May. As long as health holds out Burnett, Rodriguez and McDonald should all start the season in the majors. McPherson would ideally start the year in AAA to get a few more starts and a little more polish. This leaves two rotation spots for Karstens and Locke. I would really like to see those two battle it out for the 5th spot with Locke going to AAA if he loses and Karstens being the swing man if he loses. The las rotation spot needs to go to someone on the outside. Perhaps the Liriano deal can be reworked and he can fill the last spot (his upside would really fit nicely with what the Pirates need) or perhaps another free agent such as Marcum or Saunders can be had or maybe a trade for someone like Capuano or Porcello but the bottom line is another arm needs to be added so the Pirates can have some reasonable security that they will be able to make him through April and May with their in house rotation options.
There has been a lot of news lately about the Pirates seeking a starting pitcher but also about how they are comfortable with the internal options they have. The Pirates do have a fair number of internal options but it doesn’t appear like it is quite enough to go in to the season with. So lets take a look at those internal options the Pirates are currently counting on.
Locks For The Rotation
The Pirates have 3 locks for the starting rotation heading into the season. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald all should start the season in the rotation and each one of them could be candidates to make 30+ starts and pitch 200+ innings but then again there are age concerns surrounding Burnett and Rodriguez and consistency questions surrounding McDonald. The Pirates are likely hoping that this trio can contribute roughly half of the starts they need in the 162 game season. More realistically though anywhere from 70-75 starts would be a good total.
Competing For A Rotation Spot
The Pirates have 3 players who look as if they are competing for the final 1 or 2 rotation spots in the rotation. These players are Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Vin Mazzaro. All three of these players could definitely have a positive impact on the rotation but then again all 3 of them are untested and unproven. Locke and McPherson both showed flashes of talent near the end of last season and of the 2 Locke seems to be the most polished and ready to take on a big league job. Mazzaro is out of options so the Pirates are either going to have to start the year with him on the 25 man roster or waive him. I really don’t see him as a starter but I expect the Pirates will give him a chance to compete for a job. I’m sure the Pirates would love to get 50-60 starts from this trio but I just don’t see it. If they can get anywhere from 30-35 starts that would be a success.
Mid Season Help
The Pirates have two players who look they will be ready to provide rotation depth some time around the middle of the year. Charlie Morton should b coming back from injury and Gerrit Cole should be polished enough from the minor league to make his debut. I have my doubts about Morton getting ready in the short 30 day window he will have but the Pirates appear to be counting on that so we will see. As for Cole we all know he is the top prospect and should make a very anticipated debut this season but we shall see how he fares and how long it takes him to get here. Both pitchers certainly have the talent to fill rotation spots for this club but again there is nothing for certain here. Ideally these guys would be able to provide a half a season each which would give them 30 starts but 15-20 would be a pretty good amount.
There are two prospects outside of Gerrit Cole who appear like they could possibly make a start for the Pirates some time this season. They are Jameson Taillon and Phillip Irwin. Chances are neither will be ready until August at the earliest so counting on the for more than a handful of starts can’t be done. Taillon is of course a top prospect and Irwin is a very stable arm who with just a few months of AAA time could be a Jeff Karstens like starter for the Pirates. Again these two are talented and may play a key role in 2014 but in 2013 anything more than a taste of the majors would be highly unlikely. Around 5 starts is all that can be expected from this duo and even that may be high.
Good Stuff, Poor Control
The Pirates have two left handers who have great stuff but little control. It is uncertain rather the Pirates see them as starters or relievers right now but one would think they will each get a chance at starting in AAA at least to begin the season. These two players are Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver. Both of them are power lefties who if they can even slightly improve their control could be great starters or dominating back end relievers but that is one very big if there. The Pirates shouldn’t be counting on this pair for any starts but it would be a huge bonus if they could make some. I wouldn’t count on them for any but it wouldn’t surprise me to see 10+ starts out of this duo if one or both can take significant strides this season. More likely though these two will serve as bullpen options.
The rest of the Pirates options are players who look better suite for relief work but could step up and make a spot start if needed. They are Chris Leroux, Rick VandenHurk, Zach Stewart and Chad Beck. These guys are really just emergency starters so if the Pirates need these guys for more than 1-2 starts things have probably gone horribly wrong. I would imagine that some of these guys will not even be with the Pirates at the start if the year and if they are 1 or 2 of them are likely to be removed from the roster.
So how many starts do we have from the internal options:
Mid Season: 20
The Rest: 10
The Pirates would probably be able to get by with what they have but my fairly realistic numbers seem to suggest that unless they get good luck in regards to health or are planning to count on players who they probably shouldn’t they are going to come up about 20 starts short. I believe it is important to avoid giving starts to players who just don’t appear ready and to have some backup plans should injuries arise. It is rather apparent to me that right now the Pirates need to bring in one more dependable starter because otherwise making it through the year is going to be rather difficult and could even get ugly. So the talk about Capuano and Porcello has plenty of merit and I expect the Pirates pursuit for their them or another pitcher will start to pick up in the coming weeks.
AJ Burnett: Acquired this offseason Burnett proved to be a big boost to the Pirates rotation. After an injury which sidelined him most of April Burnett became the ace of the Pirates team and pitched well enough to genuinely be considered a borderline #1 pitcher, not just a #1 pitcher for the Pirates. As all Pirates fans hoped Burnett proved to be more comfortable in the National League, lowering his walk rate and home run rate while still striking out a fair amount of batters. Like all Pirates players Burnett did start to perform worse as the season neared its close but he was still a very strong starter for the Pirates going down the stretch. The Burnett deal looks to be one of the Huntington’s best and fortunately the Pirates have a chance to benefit from it next season as well. Burnett was an unquestioned leader this season and will hopefully continue pitching well and taking a leadership role next season. As for his performance this season it is hard to be disappointed Overall Grade: A-
James McDonald: McDonald starting off pitching as well as if not better than Burnett but unlike Burnett he went in to complete free fall in August. McDonald’s season was sort of the perfect microcosm for the Pirates season. It started off a little shaky, went on an absolute tear and then quickly fell apart at the end. Even with the horrible ending McDonald still managed to put up fairly good numbers overall for the season so it is difficult to call his year a disappointment but it is fair to say that it could have been a lot better. One area McDonald will have to work on is limiting his number of free passes allowed as that really bit him at the end of last season. McDonald profiles as a very similar pitcher to Burnett and at the beginning of the year it appeared Burnett’s presence was helping him hopefully that same effect comes back next season, as McDonald figures to have a prominent role in the rotation once again. Overall Grade: C+
Kevin Correia: Correia just wouldn’t go away this season. The Pirates tried everything they could to get him out of the rotation but alas he was the only member of the opening day rotation still making starts going down the stretch in September. He wasn’t awful this season but he really wasn’t great either. He pitched well enough to be a decent 4/5 starter which is in reality what he truly is. The Pirates could have done far worse as a backup plan this season or they could have done far better by turning to one of the younger pitchers early on. The most troubling thing about Correia this season was his inability to miss bats as his K% took another hit this season and due to this and other factors, namely bad luck, Correia had a few outings where things just didn’t seem to be going his way. Correia is now a free agent and while it could make some sense for the Pirates to bring him back I don’t think there is any mutual interest here. He did a solid job filling in and holding a back of the rotation this season so I need to give him credit for that. Overall Grade: B-
Erik Bedard: Bedard stayed relatively healthy this season which if you would have told me that at the beginning of the season I would have said would have been a huge boost for the Pirates but unfortunately it wasn’t. Bedard had a great first two months but then suffered a mild injury which forced the Pirates to push back one of his starts by a couple of days. At the time it seemed like no big deal but Bedard wasn’t the same pitcher after that. The Pirates tried to give Bedard some extra rest by going with a 6 man rotation and using off days to rearrange the rotation and give him 5 days off between starts instead of 4 but it didn’t work. So after three abysmal months the Pirates finally cut Bedard in August. I can’t really say it was a disappointing season from Bedard as he managed to stay relatively healthy, pitched two great months and even when things went sour from him the numbers suggest some bad luck was at play. Still he was a pretty bad pitcher from June one and really didn’t help the Pirates much after that point. The Pirates made a gamble on Bedard and got some production but it really didn’t pay off, still I think it was one worth making. Overall Grade: C
Jeff Karstens: Karstens did what Karstens does. When Karstens was on the field he pitched well putting up good strong numbers despite his peripherals saying he probably wasn’t that good of a pitcher. However we are used to that from Karstens but his undoing this season was his durability issues. Due to injuries and an apparent decision at the end of the season to look at younger pitchers Karstens threw only 83.1 innings. That is a major disappointment. Like I said he was good in those innings, he walked very few batters and even raised his strikeout rate again but he just didn’t manage to stay on the field long enough for me to call his season a success. The Pirates face a tough decision with Karstens as he is in the final year of arbitration and will likely command a salary of around 5 million dollars. If Karstens is healthy the Pirates won’t be able to find a better starter for 5 million dollars but the injury issues make him a potential non tender. I anticipate the Pirates will tender him but I wouldn’t rule out a trade possibility. As for this season I have to give Karstens good marks for when he pitched but I also have to knock him for how little he pitched. Overall Grade: C
Wandy Rodriguez: Rodriguez came over to the Pirates near the trade deadline in a deal that received mix reviews. A lot of fans didn’t think it was worth giving up Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens and Colton Cain for him and those voices only grew louder when Rodriguez struggled in his first handful of starts with the Pirates. As for myself I thought that was a pretty fair price for Rodriguez although I would have hoped for a bit more salary relief but that is neither here nor there. The Pirates definitely didn’t get a steal here but they weren’t robbed blind here either. Anyway after his first few shaky starts Rodriguez settled in and actually became arguably the Pirates best starter down the stretch. The Pirates probably will have Rodriguez for the next two seasons and at this point it feels kind of nice to have a good stable veteran left hander in the rotation. Rodriguez won’t wow you with his stuff and he has to improve a bit on his strike out rate he had with the Pirates but he appears to be a good option for the Pirates next season. Overall Grade: B-
The Rest: Rather than break down the final four pitchers who made the Pirates other 23 starts this season I’m just going to mention them all briefly here. Morton made nine starts before going on the DL (with what a lot of Pirates fans thought was a phantom injury) and then receiving Tommy John surgery. He wasn’t particularly impressive in those 9 starts but still has a good bit of potential. I doubt the Pirates tender Morton a contract as he won’t be ready to pitch until at least June and even then the 30 day rehab he is permitted would probably not be enough for him to get ready to pitch in the majors again. I’m expecting a non-tender and a minor league contract. Overall Grade: D Next up is Jeff Locke who made 6 starts for the Pirates and has what first looks like a terrible stat line but Locke did manage to miss some bats and his xFIP suggests his ERA was unlucky. Locke right now is slated to compete for the 5th starter job and is probably currently the favorite for that position. Overall Grade: C Third on the list making 5 starts in Brad Lincoln. Lincoln was excellent out of the bullpen for the Pirates this season but as a starter (which is all I’m grading him on here) he was quite awful. I recall one good start out of the 5. His advanced numbers suggest he was a bit unlucky as well but even so he was still pretty bad. Lincoln is no longer with the team so he obviously won’t be a factor next season. As a starter I give him an Overall Grade: D Last but not least on the list making 3 starts this season is Kyle McPherson. Due to injuries McPherson didn’t start this season in AAA but rather repeated AA. He spent most of the season there before eventually getting called up to AAA and then shortly there after getting called up to the majors. McPherson had essentially the opposite season to Locke; his stat line looks good but his advanced stats say he had a bit of luck this season. Right now McPherson is a strong candidate for the #5 job next season but I would call him a slight underdog right now. Overall Grade: C+
* I’m not going to list the pitching prospects here instead I’m going to do 3 recaps for the pitchers: starter, relievers, prospects.