The 2012 rotation has a new look to it, with a couple of veterans that have been top guns at some point in their career, a couple of younger guys with some upside, and a competition for the bottom end.
The first new guy, LHP Erik Bedard, signed this off season to a 1 year/$4.5M contract. It may not seem like an ace's paycheck, but Bedard is this year's top of the rotation guy. He's trying to reestablish his value, and where better than in low-pressure Pittsburgh?
The 32 year old (he'll turn 33 next month) has put up a 3.70 ERA in eight AL seasons, but only has 56 wins to show for. Durability, not stuff, is his major issue. He's only reached 30 starts once and never thrown 200 innings in a single season. In fact, he's only crossed the 100 inning mark once in the past four seasons, missing all of 2010 due to injury. Bedard posted a 3.62 ERA over 129-1/3 innings last season between the Mariners and Red Sox.
He gives up 3.5 walks per nine, but gets 8.8 Ks per game. If the Bucs can get 150-175 innings and 25-30 starts out him, they'll be repaid in spades for their modest investment. He doesn't have an option year in his contract, so he'll be one and done for Pittsburgh in 2012.
Behind him in the rotation should be AJ Burnett. The 35 year old is in camp and officially part of the team. His stuff and travails with New York have been well documented over the past week or so, but the righty can still miss some bats, and the Pirates hope to get 30+ starts and a 4.00 ERA out of him.
He adds more than an arm to the staff. Burnett, for all his tats and wild child rep, is said to be a good guy to young pitchers and his antics keep a clubhouse loose, even if they wear on management. If nothing else, Burnett should keep the writers and bloggers deep in column inches during his stay.
The Pirates assumed the last two years of his contract, paying him $5M this year and $8M in 2013. He also comes without an option, so Pittsburgh controls him through 2013.
RHP James McDonald, 27, showed some promise last season, although his 9-9/4.21 line wasn't all that impressive. But a rocky April and September inflated his ERA, and it was his first full season as an everyday starter. He has the ability to miss bats, but spent last season trying to manage his pitch count and getting easy outs rather than burning out his arm looking for the K, and it was an uneven effort at best.
That will be his mission this year: to get deeper into games and cut down his 4.1 walks per nine. His stuff is there if he can harness it and avoid deep counts. J-Mac will be arbitration eligible next year, so he's under team control through 2015.
Charlie Morton changed his arm slot last year and put his career back on track after a dismal 2010 campaign. The 28 year old righty went 10-10/3.83 in 2011 after a 2-12/7.57 season that resulted in a trip to Indy.
With his retooled delivery, he recorded 59% of his outs on the ground last year, and only 19% of his outs were in the air. The fewer flies, the fewer homers - and his HR rate/fly ball was a miniscule 5.8%, half of the norm, after being 18% in 2010.
This year, he's coming off labrum surgery and is a candidate to stay in Florida when the team leaves for a couple of reasons. The Bucs don't want to repeat the 2011 J-Mac situation when they hurried his return to the rotation. Secondly, the weather in Bradenton is much more conducive to recovery than a northern spring blast. And finally, he could use the time to work on a couple of lingering issues from 2011.
His splits were ridiculous. Righties hit .220 against him; lefties .364. OBP was worse, at .289/.460. An effective off speed pitch and a little more work on spotting his heat inside should be high on his to-do list. He also walked 4 batters per outing, and that could stand improvement.
We'd expect a little regression this year, especially in the home run rate, but also some improvement in his split numbers. Morton signed a $2.445M contract in his first arb season. He's under team control through 2014.
Jeff Karstens, 29, was the story in 2011. The righty went 9-9/3.38 and picked up the slack admirably when the now departed Ross Ohlendorf went down. A repeat performance isn't likely, at least in runs allowed. His strand rate was 77%, and his xFIP was 4.00. But his other stats were within his career line, and JK looks like he's proved that he can hold up the back end of a rotation.
After Clint Hurdle stretched him out and took him off his short pitch count leash, Karstens was dependable and generally got the game to the seventh inning or beyond. His stuff isn't great, but his control is and he moves the ball around. That's what you look for in a fifth starter. The downside is that he doesn't miss many bats and is a flyball pitcher, susceptible to the long ball.
He's also versatile, and shown over his time that he can be an effective spot starter and long man. The negative is that he was bombed in August and September, eventually leaving the rotation with shoulder soreness, which also shelved him in September of 2010, the season when JR first added him to the rotation. That could be the result of innings catching up to him, but the summer swoon bears watching in 2012.
He signed a $3.1 contract, and has a year of arbitration remaining.
Kevin Correia, 31, made the All-Star team and led the Pirate staff in wins with twelve. It wasn't very pretty; his ERA went up every month, finishing at 4.79. But he gave Pittsburgh a year that pretty much was predictable regarding performance, being well in line with his career stats. The only noticeable difference was a fairly large drop in his K rate, but that may have been by design as he also put up the lowest walk rate of his career.
Like Karstens, his stuff is pedestrian and he doesn't have much upside beyond a bottom of the rotation guy. He didn't become a full time starter until 2008, and it will be interesting to see which one ends up in the bullpen when Charlie Morton returns. It could be either guy, providing another little sidebar to follow.
He makes $3M this year, and is eligible for free agency in 2013.
Brad Lincoln, 26, along with non-roster invitee Shairon Martis, 24 (he'll turn 25 next month), are the top two minor league reserves. Lincoln, a first round pick in 2006, has 17 starts with the Pirates over the past two seasons, and was 2-3/4.72 in 2011. He needs to get more aggressive at the MLB level; nibbling and falling behind batters has been his MO.
Martis had nineteen starts over the past two seasons with the Nats, and posted a 6-6/5.33 line. He has a four pitch arsenal, and may have had his development stunted by call ups to Washington before his time.
Other guys in the upper system now are Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Kyle McPherson and perhaps Justin Wilson. Much of the talent and promise is in the lower levels, with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Nick Kingham, Stetson Allie, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson and Zack von Rosenberg.
The Pirates have also brought in a couple of non-roster depth guys in Daniel Cabrera, who sat out 2011 with TJ surgery, and Jo-Jo Reyes to provide some depth.
There's some reason to be optimistic over this year's staff. If things fall together right, it will easily be the strongest rotation of the Coonelly/Huntington era, and with a little bit of depth.
Bedard and Burnett have both been staff aces at some point of their career, McDonald and Morton should be better prepared after a full year under their belts, and Karstens and Correia are competent at the bottom end.
It also could go bust - Bedard has injury concerns, Burnett has back-to-back seasons with 5+ ERAs, McDonald and Morton are trying to establish themselves, and Karstens and Correia are rotation fillers without much upside.
Half empty or half full? This season will tell if Huntington has built a staff that can carry on, at least until the young turks are ready to take the hill.