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.