Earlier this week, we took a deep look at the Pittsburgh Pirates roster battles by position. Today we will take a gander over to the pitching staff, where several key changes have once-again given the Bucs a new look on the rubber.
The 2012 Pirates opened the season with veterans LHP Erik Bedard and RHP Kevin Correia at the back of the rotation, both expected to provide the team with solid innings pitched. Bedard was a total flop, never regaining any semblance of the form he had shown in 2011. After starting 24 games for the Bucs, Bedard was cut loose on August 28 after posting a 7-14 record and bloated 5.01 ERA. The veteran left-hander signed with Houston in the offseason. Correia finished his two year run with the team by starting 32 games, a record of 12-11 and a 4.21 ERA. Correia parlayed his Pirates contract into a two-year deal with the Minnesota Twins, and will make his American League debut in 2013.
The trade that brought RHP A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh proved to be one of the best moves of the year, as Burnett found his groove in the low-pressure environment of PNC Park. He will once again anchor the rotation, with the New York Yankees paying over half of the $16.5 million he will earn this season. Burnett led the Pirates with 202.1 IP and 180 strikeouts and was on pace for N.L. Cy Young Award consideration before the team tanked the final two months. The biggest in-season move for the Pirates was the addition of LHP Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros at the trade deadline. Rodriguez pitched well after being acquired in a trade that sent three minor leaguers to Houston, and he is signed through 2013 with a team option for 2014. The diminutive southpaw started 12 games for the Bucs down the stretch, with a 5-4 record and decent 3.72 ERA. Burnett and Rodriguez will give the Pirates their best veteran rotation combination in many years, and should provide over 200 IP respectively.
RHP James McDonald took his first steps towards becoming a bona-fide ace in 2012. He was on pace to finish with very solid all-around numbers before seeming to hit the wall in the second half. The 28-year old righty has now given the Pirates 171 IP in each of the past two seasons, and this could be the year he breaks into the 200 IP plateau. If he can maintain the form he showed in the first half of 2012, “J-Mac” could be on the verge of becoming one of the best starters in the National League. The 2010 Trade Deadline deal that sent reliever Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers for McDonald looks better with each passing season.
After being non-tendered by the team in November, RHP Jeff Karstens re-signed with the Pirates this past week and will once again be in line for a rotation slot in 2013. Karstens has yet to show the ability to pile up innings as a starter, and ultimately he may be better suited for a long-relief job. However, his bulldog mentality and control keep him in the running for a starting job. After increasing his workload the previous three seasons, injuries kept Karstens under 100 IP in 2012. When he is on the mound, the 30-year old RHP is a solid pitcher and he has become a fan-favorite with his quick work and limited walk totals, both qualities that the rest of the Pirates staff could benefit from copycatting.
Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, and Karstens will begin the season as 1-4 in the rotation, with the fifth and final spot going to a group of hopeful pitchers looking to grasp the fifth slot in the Pirates rotation in April. That group includes LHP Jeff Locke, who has not been able to get on track in his limited major league runs of 2011 and 2012. Locke put together a great season for AAA-Indianapolis in 2012, finishing 10-5 with a 2.48 ERA before being recalled to Pittsburgh. It seems that Locke is at a point where further AAA seasoning is unneeded. The 25-year old left-hander will need to establish himself in the major league camp in Bradenton or he could end up out of the Pirates plans moving forward. Another young starter in the running will be RHP Kyle McPherson, who also experienced a breakthrough season at Indianapolis in 2012. McPherson pitched in 10 games for the Pirates in 2012, including three starts. His 2.73 ERA and 7.2 K/9 should put him firmly in the drivers seat for the fifth rotation spot with a solid Spring.
Former starter RHP Charlie Morton is coming off dreaded Tommy John surgery in June, a procedure that usually requires 12-16 months of rehab to overcome. Morton, who completely re-vamped his style from power pitcher to sinkerball specialist in 2011, experienced some success with his new career path, going 10-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 IP in 2011. His 2012 season started dreadfully before damaged ligaments forced the end of his season after just nine starts. Morton will not be ready by Opening Day, but once he is completely rehabbed, fans should expect a quick stint in Indianapolis to be followed by a recall to Pittsburgh and an attempted re-start of his career as a Pirates starter. Other candidates to watch closely in Spring Training include reliever Chris LeRoux, who will attempt to convert to starting after years of bullpen work, LHP Justin Wilson, and RHP Jeanmar Gomez, acquired from Cleveland last month.
The Pirates have been on the verge of signing LHP Francisco Liriano since December. A deal seemed to be completed before Christmas, a two-year $12 million contract that would have made the perennial underachiever a Pirate. Before the ink could dry on the contract, Liriano broke his right (non-throwing) arm in a household accident. The Pirates were once again on the verge of announcing a completed deal last week, as reported by all of the major news outlets. At this point, it seems unlikely that Liriano will be locked up before Spring Training, and it is possible that the entire deal could be scrapped. If by some chance the Pirates do sign Liriano, he would slide in as the fifth starter once he is healthy.
The bullpen will have a new look as well, with former All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan dealt to Boston is what looks to be a completely financially-driven deal. Just before the Hanrahan trade went down, the Pirates had resigned hard-throwing RHP Jason Grilli to be their primary set-up man. Grilli will now slide into the closers role, where he should excel with his power arsenal. Looking back, the move to pluck Grilli out of the Phillies minor-league system back in July 2011 continues to pay dividends. Last season as the primary set-up man to “The Hammer”, Grilli posted a 3.07 ERA with a league-best 13.8 K/9. He threw 58.2 innings, the most for him since he racked up 61.1 IP for the 2008 Rockies. The Pirates signed Grilli to a two-year deal on December 12, which will pay him $6.75 million over two seasons – a true bargain for a guy who could end up being one of the best closers in the National League in 2013.
The new set-up man to Grilli will be RHP Mark Melancon, who was acquired as part of the Hanrahan deal. Last season with the Red Sox, Melancon dropped off from the career season he had as the closer for the Houston Astros in 2011. Back in his comfort zone in the N.L. Central, expect the 27-year old fireballer to find his form once again. Melancon is signed through 2017, giving the Pirates a long-term solution in the eighth inning should he be effective. LHP Tony Watson will again be the primary southpaw out of the bullpen, a role he filled last season as well. Watson went 5-2 with a 3.38 ERA and 8.9 K/9 through 43.1 IP in 2012. He has become a reliable left-handed reliever for the Bucs, and he is virtually impossible to hit by left-handed hitters; as evidenced by his .183 Batting Average Against by lefties.
“The Bulldog” Jared Hughes is back as well for the Bucs, as the 27-year old RHP will serve as a middle reliever. Hughes has gained a cult following because of his unique style and look when he is on the mound. Mild-mannered during the day, he turns into a snarling fighter once he hits the rubber. Hughes went 2-2 for the Bucs last season with a 2.85 ERA while leading all Pirates relief pitchers with 75.2 IP. The Pirates did not bring back RHP Chris Resop, instead allowing him to walk and sign a deal with Oakland. Resop was the least-effective arm out of the bullpen last season, but the Pirates will need someone to step up and replace the 73.2 IP he gave the Bucs in 2012.
RHP Chris LeRoux is back from an injury-plagued season and should fit into a middle relief role. Both LHP Justin Wilson and RHP Bryan Morris will enter Spring Training with a chance to make the Pirates roster as well. Former All-Star Evan Meek is gone, released by the team in October after never regaining his velocity following a 2011 injury. Meek is a disappointing story for Pirates fans, who thought they had a future closer in the 29-year old righty. Also gone is RHP Daniel McCutchen, who spent part of the last four seasons in Pittsburgh. He was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in November.
Other options for the Pirates bullpen are as follows: RHP Kyle McPherson, RHP Vin Mazzaro, RHP Stolmy Pimentel (acquired in the Hanrahan trade), RHP Hunter Strickland, and non-roster invitees RHP Kyle Waldrop and LHP Mike Zagurski. Both top prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole will be in the major league camp to start Spring Training, but neither seems to have a shot at making the Opening Day roster. Expect both Taillon and Cole to make their major league debuts sometime this summer.
The Pirates have more quality arms in their rotation than fans are used to in 2013. The days of suffering through starts by such all-time Bucco greats as Kip Wells, Ross Ohlendorff, and Zach Duke are over. A rotation containing Burnett, Rodriguez, and McDonald is formidable and the addition of Liriano (if it ever happens) would be a very intriguing move. As mentioned earlier, both Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole should be ready to make their debuts this season, so if the Pirates enjoy another solid first-half – the time could come sooner than later for both top prospects to join the Pirates rotation.
General Manager Neil Huntington continues to build the bullpen nearly from scratch every year. Despite the constant turnover, the Pirates have been able to get good production from their relievers. However, the loss of Hanrahan will be felt both on the mound and in the clubhouse, where he had become a vocal leader for the team. The Pirates have a load of young pitchers in their system that will be one year closer to the big leagues in 2013, so fans have a nice future to look forward to on the mound at PNC Park.
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