Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Pitching Shuffle

Just a couple of days ago, the Pirate pitching rotation was coming into focus; a little fuzzy, but everything other than the fringe pieces were falling in place. Now...

Jonathan Sanchez was signed to a minor league deal, and apparently Francisco Liriano is a physical away from getting his Pirate papers in order, too. That leaves a lot of guys in line to vie for a spot on the staff this year. That may be routine for many clubs, but in Pittsburgh...well, it seems like a long time since so much jostling has gone on.

The starting core will remain the same, with AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald locks to open in 2013. Wandy is the only guy, though, who has shown true consistency in his career. Since 2009, he's answered the bell 30-34 times per season, worked between 191-206 innings, posted ERAs of 3.02-3.76 and FIPs of 3.50-4.15; Wandy is one of the breed who outperforms his FIP on a regular basis. He's not an ace, but slots nicely in the two or three hole.

AJ posted his best walk numbers (7.3%) since 2006, his best ERA (3.51) since 2005 and his best FIP (3.52) since 2008. So repeating his sterling 2012 campaign isn't a given; although switching divisions and becoming the alpha dog could be the drivers behind the season. One thing you can be sure of is that he'll show up. Since 2008, he's started between 31-33 games and worked 186-221 IP.

James McDonald is trying to become more than a tease. He's got the tools, but now needs to grow into a pitcher. His pitch count problems and last season's post-All Star meltdown indicate his troubles are more rooted in approach and command rather than ability, and we're waiting for the light to come on.

Until that time, the team can't be sure what they'll get from J-Mac. He is a true results pitcher; last year his ERA and FIP matched at 4.21, and in his career his ERA is 4.10 with a FIP of 4.23. His stuff plays well enough that he could easily slot in the #2-#3 holes of a rotation, so the Bucs will put forth the effort into developing him.

So the main question among those three is how they're slotted. Burnett and Rodriguez are historically workhorses, and J-Mac has the strongest arsenal of the trio. They'll start as the top three, but there are some upside arms behind them.

Jeff Karstens was sitting in the four hole, and Jeff Locke, pushed by Kyle McPherson and Jeanmar Gomez, had the last spot a couple of days ago. But that's changed now.

Karstens may end up bumped back to his old role as spot starter/mid-to-long reliever; the Pirates don't seem all that eager, given his injury history, to hand him a rotation spot, and now they don't have to. Sanchez, for all his problems last year, was shut down by tendinitis over the last two months of 2012, and may have been pitching hurt all year. That would make him a bounce-back candidate with a bullet.

Liriano has been plagued with inconsistency; he's been the opposite of Wandy in that he underperforms by his metrics. His lifetime FIP is 3.75, which is a nice number, but his career ERA is a quite pedestrian 4.40, especially considering his stuff. The Cisco Kid's ERA has beat his FIP just once, and that was in 2006. But his toolkit is loaded, and he can still get guys to swing and miss.

We know the Bucs are taking fliers on Sanchez and Liriano, but both are young (Liriano is 29, Sanchez 30), have some pretty good seasons behind them, and want to reestablish their value. The FO could be looking at them as more than rentals.

Throw into the equation that Charlie Morton, who is out of options, should return sometime after the All-Star game. Gerrit Cole will be called up when he's ready and there's an every-fifth-day spot open for him. They have plenty of guys available for emergency starts; when they bring up Cole, we'd assume it'll be for good.

Phil Irwin and Justin Wilson both could become challengers to Locke and McPherson at Indy. The rule of thumb is that a staff should be at least eight guys deep to get through a season; looks like the Bucs should be able to cover that this year, for the first time in the Huntington/Coonelly era.

All those those tumbling dominoes will complicate the bullpen choices. If JK rejoins the pen, that means that he, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are in.

That leaves Chris Leroux, Bryon Morris, Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez battling for two spots, and all four of those guys are out of options. They may get a temporary reprieve if Liriano can't go by Opening Day, but that's only delaying the inevitable. And don't count out Wilson as a candidate to break camp, especially if Clint Hurdle wants a second lefty.

Pitching will be the biggest sidebar of the spring, not just concerning the roster but as possible trade pieces. And for a change, that sidebar should be a good thing.

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