Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pirate Starting Pitching - 2013

For all the youth movement Pittsburgh is suppose to be in the midst of, the only sure things in next year's rotation are oldies AJ Burnett, 35 (16-10, 3.51), and Wandy Rodriguez, 33 (12-13, 3.76). Both are under contract for next season and have a five year history of eating innings, so they should anchor the staff.

But after that, there are nothing but questions. James McDonald, 27 and entering his first arb year, was a Jeckyl and Hyde guy on the mound, killing before the All-Star break and dying afterward. He's too young and too talented when he's dealing to give up on, especially as Pirates insist that his second half problems weren't mechanical, but had to do with his mental approach. He's a key swingman in 2013, and which pitcher shows up will be a pretty good indicator on how successful the staff will be in the coming campaign.

Jeff Karstens, 30, is another pitcher whose Pirate career could be at a crossroads as the FO has expressed some concerns about his ability to get through a season. This year, he worked just 90-2/3 frames to go with career high 162-1/3 innings and nine wins in 2011. He made $3.1M last season, and will probably earn north of $4M next year through arb. JK has some value, so the Pirates will likely either sign or tender him, but their lack of confidence portends a trade in the off season. Some feel that his role could be filled just as effectively by Chris Leroux. But as shown after his injury, he does leave a hole in the staff when he's out, so we'd suppose the management discussions are back-and-forth on his future.

Kevin Correia is the only rotation guy who will definitely move on; the unpleasantness caused by his move to the bullpen in August and his replaceable performance makes a rematch the longest of long shots. Well, also Eric Bedard, but he wasn't coming back, either.

The Pirates spent a lot of time for a team that was allegedly in a pennant race auditioning Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. Locke, 24, has a dozen starts over two seasons for the Pirates with just one win and a 5.81 ERA to show for the effort. He's frustrating, and like McDonald may need a mental rather than physical adjustment to succeed. A control pitcher in the minors, he's a nibbler in the show, tossing too many pitches out of the zone and falling behind too many hitters. As a result, he's made it past five innings just once. If the Pirates can get Locke to trust his stuff and be more aggressive in the strike zone, he can fill the back end of the rotation capably. If not, it's back to Indy.

McPherson, 24, shot through the system this year after missing the start with a dead arm. He uses his 93 MPH fastball to set up his off speed deliveries, mainly a curve and an occasional change. In the tiny sample size of 26-1/3 innings, he put up an ERA of 2.73, though his FIP was around four, as he left a lot of runners (87%) stranded, and had a 7:2 K to walk ratio. The 2011 Pirate Minor league Pitcher of the Year has a pretty strong chance of breaking with the team as a back-end starter, even if he pitches to his FIP.

Three other guys at Indy have a chance of joining the team sometime during the season. Top gun Gerritt Cole, 22, will start the season with the Tribe and could progress to the show sometime in the summer. That's a maybe; he only got one start at AAA in 2012.

Another is Justin Wilson, 25, the only highly rated lefty in the system. His problem is with command; the plate often has a different zip code than his deliveries. Our guess is that the Pirates will work him as a starter at Indy to begin the season; they would love to have another southpaw to throw at PNC Park to take the Clemente Wall out of play. But if he continues to struggle throwing strikes, this may be the season they finally decide to stick him in the bullpen permanently.

A longer shot is RHP Phil Irwin, 25, who split the season between Altoona and Indy, getting four starts for the Tribe. After missing some early season time with a lower arm injury, he showed enough to be on the radar screen and could pop up in mid-season.

Jameson Taillon, 20, is on everyone's lips, but he'll start at Altoona, making an arrival in Pittsburgh before 2014 possible but unlikely. Luis Heredia, 18, is a year or two behind him. Fans often forget just how young these guys are; they are the future, but not the immediate future. They have some other promising arms in the pipeline, but at the lower levels and none are can't-miss types. That's the downside of putting all your eggs in the high school basket during the draft.

Charlie Morton, 29, is another guy that Pittsburgh has on the roster; his timeline after TJ surgery is mid-season. He's out of options and in the middle of his arb years, with a 2012 $2.445M contract. The odds are that the Pirates will try to sign him to a two-way deal; the chances of him being physically ready to pitch at an MLB level aren't that great in 2013.

The Pirates will poke the market for another arm, preferably a southpaw. Lefties are hard to come by, and effective ones even more rare; Joe Saunders sticks out, but after his year at Baltimore could be a hot item. Hey...maybe they'll bring Paul Maholm back! But it's tough to judge what free agent goodies will be available until early November, when the tenders and options are decided, so we'll revisit the list after it's set. Guys whom the club was interested in last year who should be FA's this season are Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson and Francisco Loriano.

The Bucs aren't deep in starting pitching; an injury or two, especially with their anchors both in their mid-thirties and their young guns not ready for prime time yet, could devastate the staff. So we think they'll actively look for another pitcher during the off season, whether through trade or free agency.


WilliamJPellas said...

Who'da thunk that we'd all be pulling for the likes of Charlie Morton to come back and at least stabilize, if not outright save, the staff next season? Whew.

I still say Justin Wilson has the most upside of the three starters the Pirates currently have who are ready to graduate from Triple A. As you say, Ron, control is the whole issue with him. But I'd like to see him make the team out of spring training and get 8 or 10 or 12 starts in a row and see what happens. I'm willing to bet that his good-to-dominant outings would outweigh the ones in which he can't hit the ocean with a beach ball. In any case Locke is distinctly unimpressive to this point in his career. McPherson is the middle ground between the two; although it would be risky to start two rookies in the rotation, perhaps the team should bite the bullet, throw Wilson and McPherson into the deep end right out of spring training, and keep Karstens around as the fallback option. Karstens, it seems, simply can't stay in one piece for an entire season, but he is very effective for extended stretches as long as it's not every single time through the rotation. So, 'twould seem that the smart move would be to bring him back for one more year as the long man / sixth starter, and if either of the rookies spits the bit, Karstens can come in for half the year or what have you, and the season won't be blown to smithereens. Meanwhile Cole should be up at around the All Star break. I would think they might try to bring in one more capable veteran so we have reliable options 1 through 3, and audition the rookies at 4 and 5 with the idea that Karstens and, ultimately, Morton are fallback options. At least, that's what I'd do. They need to find out what the kids can do.

Ron Ieraci said...

Sounds logical, Will. I think that they'd prefer to start the year with AJ-Wandy-McDonald, a FA, and one of the Indy gang. The rotation will make for a nice spring sidebar, even if they land a FA.

The infield looks like they don't have much faith in what they have beyond The Kid and Barmes. I was hoping to see more of Mercer, but he appears to have turned into 2012's Ciriaco.

WilliamJPellas said...

I'm not losing any sleep over Mercer, even though he did, obviously, get "The Ciriaco Treatment". Ditto with d'Arnaud, though it's a shame to see his great speed go to waste. But like the old timers always said: "Ya can't steal first base, kid".

As for the infield, seems to me that depends on how radical they want to be. The safe move would be to bring Garrett Jones back for another year and pair him with Sanchez---a pairing that will probably be good for 30 HR, and that's good enough from your first baseman (though if Jones falls off again and/or Sanchez struggles again, their combined batting average might be a lot lower than we like or need). They could, however, opt to let Jones walk, spend the money on a free agent 3B, and move Pedro to first. Or, they could move Walker to third and spend money on upgrading 2B and SS. I don't see them cutting Barmes, though, not with how much money they're spending on him and how much Hurdle likes him and---to be fair---how good he is defensively.

Which brings us back to the starting pitching. I dunno, Ron. Given that Cole is on a fast track to Pittsburgh for the second half of 2013, and given how much money they would save (to presumably spend elsewhere on the roster) by going with at least one rookie starting pitcher coming out of spring training...I think they'd be better off spending on a catcher or perhaps even a starting corner outfielder. Even there, though, "Lunchbox" wasn't brought here to sit. But he will sit if he doesn't get in A LOT better shape. Maybe they blow big bucks on a corner OF and trade Lunchbox. There's a lot of options, but there don't appear to be many affordable options. In other words they would really have to blow up a significant part of the roster to get a definitive upgrade over what they already have. To be sure, they can afford to do it, but....are the free agents this coming offseason worth paying even more than they paid Barmes and Barajas? I dunno 'bout that. And if they don't do that, do they have the guts to play 2 or 3 or even 4 kids coming right out of spring training? I don't think that they do.

WilliamJPellas said...

P S Speaking of Ciriaco, he managed a .293 average this season in 259 at bats with the BoSox while playing mostly 3B and SS. To be sure, he didn't walk enough and he has no power, but he added 16 SB's. In short: a very good utility guy capable of starting for a few weeks at a time without killing you. Think the Pirates could have used a guy like that? I do.

Outright blatant errors in player evaluation happen with every organization, but this sort of obvious error was supposed to be on the way out with the new regime. Obviously that hasn't happened. I won't barbecue them for decisions like letting Maholm and Doumit go, but I will roast them on a spit for whiffing on young players that they acquire in trades. The front office not only screwed up royally with Ciriaco---what, he's not even good enough to be a utilityman for the woebegone Pirates?---but also with Brandon Moss, with whom they gave up much too quickly. Neither of those guys were or are worldbeaters, but that's not the point. The point is that the guys who replaced them (Tabata for Moss and Mercer / d'Arnaud for Ciriaco) aren't even as good as they were. These are the kind of repeated errors that get GM's fired, or should.