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Monday September 22 2014
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Pirates Pitching Breakdown

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The Pirates starting rotation received a minor overhaul over the offseason, with the recent acquisition of veteran A.J. Burnett from the Yankees, and the earlier signing of lefty Erik Bedard. Gone are Ross Ohlendorf, who never lived up to his workhorse reputation, and Paul Maholm, who started more games than any lefty in the National League over the past five years.



Here’s a look at the rest of the staff, in no particular order…

A.J. Burnett
The Pirates acquired Burnett at the outset of spring training, and he immediately became the most experienced—and most successful—pitcher in the rotation. At 35, photo courtesy of Pittsburgh PiratesBurnett is not the pitcher he was with the Marlins and Blue Jays earlier in his career, when he was an All-Star who tossed a no-hitter, but he's a legitimate major league arm and has won at least 10 games for seven straight seasons. He's an innings-eater and should benefit with a return to the National League, as well as reuniting with his battery-mate from his days in Toronto, catcher Rod Barajas. Despite his well-publicized struggles with the Yankees, Burnett was a .500 pitcher who started and won Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Detroit last October.

Future: Burnett has two years remaining on his contract, and with the Yankees picking up the bulk of the cost, he's a good bet to return in 2013 if he has a successful season this year.

Jeff Karstens
In 2010, Karstens was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, viewed as nothing more than a rubber arm who could pitch in long relief or spot start. In 2011, he was plugged into the rotation due to injuries and excelled, including a two-month stretch when he went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA. This season, he has a chance to be the Opening Day starter.
photo by Chuck LeClaire
Karstens makes up for his lack of velocity and put-away pitch with remarkable control and undeniable confidence. Unfortunately, when you don’t miss bats (5.3 k/9 in 2011), you don’t throw 98 mph (he occasionally hits 90), and you can’t maneuver the ball within the strike zone like Greg Maddux, major league hitters will figure you out – which they eventually did. In his last seven starts he won only once and posted a 6.57 ERA.  

The chances of Karstens repeating the success he showed last season are slim. But as long as he continues to throw strikes, he will have nights of throwing seven shutout innings – they may just be sandwiched between starts in which he doesn’t make it out of the fourth.

Future: Last year’s performance was a surprise, and the Pirates should be skeptical he can perform at a similar level through 25-plus starts. If he doesn’t, a return to the bullpen as the sixth starter is a possibility, although his $3.1 million salary should ensure he gets ample opportunity to take the hill every fifth day..

Kevin Correia
Correia started the season 4-2 with a 2.90 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in April, but endured a steep decline in the second half: an 8.41 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in August. He still may begin 2012 in the rotation, depending on the health of Charlie Morton, but he would likely be the first one out when Morton returns, or if Jeff Locke, Brad Lincoln or minor league free agent Jo-Jo Reyes show enough to take his spot in Spring Training.  photo by Chuck LeClaire

Future: Unless he can regain the magic he had to start last season, it’s difficult to envision Correia receiving another contract and returning to the Pirates beyond 2012 – especially given his 2011 numbers at PNC Park (2-8; 7.71 ERA).

Charlie Morton
Morton, who had hip surgery in October and will likely start 2012 a couple weeks behind, lowered his arm slot in 2011 and saw immediate success, compiling a 2.52 ERA through May. Unfortunately, the change brought new movement for his sinker, which he struggled to photo by Chuck LeClairecommand. Add the fact that lefties hit an otherworldly .364 against him, and it was no surprise his ERA jumped to 4.04 by July. Still, he finished the season a respectable 10-10 with a 3.83 ERA – a monumental step forward from 2010 (2-12; 7.57 ERA).

Future: It’s the most overused phrase in baseball, but Morton really does have the “stuff” to be an effective starter – just ask the Reds (3-0 with two complete games and a 0.93 ERA against them in 2011). He has yet to put it all together, but the bright spot is he went from being a punch line in 2010 to a minor success in 2011. If he can control his sinker, he may take a bigger leap in 2012.

James McDonald
In his first start as a Pirate in 2010, McDonald struck out seven of his first 11 batters on way to six shutout innings. It was a trend the Pirates have come to expect – not photo by Chuck LeClairethe strikeouts, but the fact he rarely makes it through seven innings (once in his first 22 starts in 2011).

With that said, of all the Pirates starters, McDonald has greatest potential for improvement. His fastball is at times overpowering, but he suffers from innings in which he can’t find the strike zone, running up his pitch count as a result.

Future: If McDonald can find a comfortable, reliable out-pitch, he'll work his way up the rotation depth chart. But if he continues to have bouts of wildness, he could just as easily find himself back in long relief.

Erik Bedard
The Pirates filled the only open spot in their rotation by inking Bedard to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. The 32-year-old lefty has seen his stock plummet deeper each photo courtesy Pittsburgh Piratesyear following his peak 2007 season (3.16 ERA, 221 strikeouts), as, due to injuries, he missed the entire 2010 season and appeared in only 15 games in each of 2008 and 2009. The Pirates are hoping he is closer to the form he showed last year when he had a 2.82 ERA and recorded four-year highs in starts (24), innings pitched (129.1) and strikeouts (125).

Future: Bedard won't be around after this season. If he has success in 2012, he’ll either be dealt at the deadline or play himself into free agency and out of the Pirates’ price range. If he underperforms or gets injured, the Pirates would have no interest in bringing him back.

Bullpen: Back End
Joel Hanrahan

Hanrahan went 40 for 44 in save opportunities last season and finished with a 1.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. His only downfall was that his strikeouts dropped off photo by Chuck LeClaireconsiderably from the year before (12.9 k/9 to 8 k/9). It might not immediately raise a red flag, as he admittedly changed his pitching style to allow the ball to be put in play, but it is something to watch in 2012.

He avoided arbitration this season by signing a one-year, $4.1 million contract.  As long as he can continue to control his 99-mph fastball, he should remain one of the top closers in the National League.

Future: Besides Bedard, Hanrahan is the most likely player to be traded this year if he pitches well. While his contract is market value for a closer, it still makes him one of the team’s highest paid players – a hefty price for a 90-loss team. He shortens the game and makes the Pirates better, but he’s a needless luxury. Odds are he finishes 2012 in a different uniform.  

Evan Meek
The 2010 All-Star started off 2011 on a bad note, blowing a lead on several occasions and never finding his high-90s fastball. He photo by Pittsburgh Piratesappeared in only 24 games due to injuries, but even when he was healthy he wasn’t quite himself. His ERA jumped from 2.14 in 2010 to 3.48 last year, his WHIP went from 1.05 to 1.89, and his BB/9 ballooned from 3.5 to 5.2.  

Regardless of his performance last season, Meek remains the set-up man entering 2012 and will likely be next up to fill the closer role if Hanrahan gets injured or is dealt.

Future: The consensus is Meek will perform closer to his 2010 form as opposed to last season’s. He is likely the closer of the future, and, assuming he can regain his explosive fastball from 2010, could fill the spot nicely.

The Rest
Bucking their usual trend of filling out the bullpen anew each year, the Pirates signed both Chris Resop and Jason Grilli to one-year deals to avoid arbitration and add depth to the back end. Resop is the type of power arm Huntington covets in relief, striking out 103 in 88.2 innings the past two years combined. Grilli was signed as a free agent in late July and impressed Huntington enough to earn a $1.1 million deal for 2012.

The rest of the bullpen remains mostly the same, with the only subtraction being the trade of Jose Veras to the Brewers. But Daniel McCutchen showed he is more comfortable in relief as opposed to starting, and Daniel Moskos, Chris Leroux and Tony Watson all impressed in limited appearances. Lincoln wants to start, but will have to show his stuff in relief until a spot in the rotation opens up. Altogether, Clint Hurdle should have an above-average relief corp at his disposal for 2012.

Future: Huntington trusts bullpen arms little, and has no fear in building his from scratch each year. This season will be the aberration, as the names and faces will remain mostly the same. Two or three years down the road, however, is anyone's guess.

I spent three days late last month visiting 18 high schools across the WPIAL. I drove 533 miles, took hundreds of photographs, shook hands with dozens of coaches, athletic directors and principals and climbed way too many stadium steps. I loved every minute of it, of course.
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