A lot of focus goes to offense, and particularly power, in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. However, if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that pitching wins games. You can have a good offense, but you can lose due to a lack of pitching. Likewise, you don’t need the best offense if your pitching is strong. We saw the latter this year. The Pirates were winning and contending with strong pitching, despite a very poor offense. The offense picked up the pace in early August, but the pitching fell apart, and so did the team.
Offense is obviously important, but it’s pitching that wins. The strong pitching we’ve seen this year could lead to an excess of options next year, leaving some interesting decisions for the off-season. Here is a breakdown of those options, and how the rotation could look to start the 2012 season.
Paul Maholm – Maholm has an option year for $9.75 M, with a $750 K buyout. Due to his injury, there’s a chance he might not see that option picked up. The price would represent close to the max value of what Maholm is capable of, which means there’s a good chance the contract could give the Pirates value, but considering his inconsistent career, there’s also a good chance the contract looks like a big waste.
Kevin Correia – Correia is under control for one more year, at $3 M next year. He will likely get a rotation spot, despite his second half struggles this year. He’s not a top of the rotation starter, but his performance this year has been above average for a number four of five starter.
Jeff Karstens – Last year there were questions as to whether Karstens should be retained. This year, no such questions will exist, thanks to his 3.09 ERA in 148.1 innings. It will be interesting to see how much Karstens gets as a second time arbitration eligible player, especially following a breakout season where not everyone considers him legit.
Charlie Morton – Morton will be another interesting arbitration case. He went from being one of the worst starters of the year in baseball last year (possibly even the worst), to a 3.63 ERA in 144 innings this year. That’s been due to his sinker, which has made some big improvements this year. However, the sinker has also been inconsistent, which can be expected for a guy making the changes Morton has made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting around $2 M at least, similar to what Ross Ohlendorf got last year.
Ross Ohlendorf – Speaking of Ohlendorf, he will be eligible for arbitration again this year. However, he’s had a big down year, with injuries and poor performances when he’s been healthy. The month of September will be huge for him trying to win a spot next year, especially with a lot of spots looking to be locked up. I don’t think he’ll be a non-tender candidate, considering his previous success, but I do think the arbitration process will be easier this year.
Brad Lincoln – Lincoln is going to make a very interesting situation next year if he keeps pitching the way he has been in his last two starts with the Pirates. He will have six years of control remaining beyond the 2011 season, making him an option for the short term rotation and the long term rotation. If he has a strong month of September, I think he will lock down a starting role for next year.
James McDonald – McDonald might not have the best numbers, but he’s been one of the best pitchers in the rotation this year. A big issue has been his inability to go deep in to games, due to high pitch counts. A lot of that is due to strikeouts, with a staff leading 7.4 K/9, but he also has an issue with walks, with a 4.0 BB/9 ratio. He’s still got one more year of league minimum salary, and he’s pretty much a lock for the rotation.
Jeff Locke – He’s looked good since moving up to AAA, and he’s probably the best bet of this group to arrive early in the season if the Pirates have some injuries.
Kyle McPherson – I don’t see him arriving until June 2012 at the earliest, although he could be an option for next year, and is probably the best prospect that could arrive in the rotation in 2012.
Bryan Morris – It seems more likely that he remains in the bullpen, and that he arrives in the majors in that role.
Rudy Owens – Owens had a down year this year, and is currently on the AAA disabled list with a shoulder injury. It’s unlikely that the Pirates could rely on him to start the year, although he could be an option early in the season if he gets back on track in Spring Training and in April.
Aaron Thompson – We’ve only seen one start out of Thompson, and while he made a good outing, it’s too soon to say he’s a starting option for the Pirates, especially when he didn’t look strong in the minors this year. He does provide them with some depth, but it’s more likely that he ends up a relief pitching option.
Justin Wilson – I think Wilson has a better chance than Morris of moving back to the rotation, although he might be a better bet to arrive in the majors as a bullpen option.
Rotation Spot Locked Down – Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald
I don’t really see these three missing the rotation, unless there’s a trade or a injury.
Making Over $1 M – Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Kevin Correia
It will be interesting to see what they do with this group. Based on the above, they only need two of them as starters. They might only need one of these options, depending on what happens with Lincoln. I wouldn’t be surprised if they declined Maholm, or traded him. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Ohlendorf or Correia move to the bullpen, serving as emergency starters in the early part of the season.
Other Candidates – Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke
Honestly, I don’t see any of the depth guys getting a legit shot out of Spring Training, but Locke seems the most likely from this group. I think roster spots are decided well before Spring Training, which is why September will be so important for Lincoln. If he wins a spot, the middle group could become interesting. They’re the most expensive options, but you could argue that Ohlendorf, Correia, and even Maholm, are the 5th-7th best options on the team.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.
McDonald is still too much of a question mark to me. People say he doesn’t make it deep into games because of his strikeouts, but thats really babying him. God, whatever ever happened to the days of Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and even John Candelaria? Guys regularly going deep into the late innings with 8 or 9 strikeouts and even 3 or 4 walks as well. They got deep into games because they regularly gave up so few hits. But in those days 130 pitches in a game was typical. Now half of that is thought to be high! And guys were no more injured then than they are now, even less so.
But I expect that Karstens will be fine (I have always felt him to be a solid starter who was never given a regular chance), and Lincoln I like too. Those are the two to me who would seem to be safe bets. Morton will gain consistency over time, thats what he really needs, time. So those three I think are the starting point. Correia is streaky like Ohlendorff. Both are shaky options unless they are on a good streak. If a bad one, they can’t be depended on. I’d rather they stick them both in middle relief and be treated as they did Karstens for so long (undeservedly in my opinion).
Wth Maholm possibly being let go, I assume they will take a look at the free agent market (not much of a look as usual, but a look none the less. Do they still have any plans with Garrett Olson?
Whatever happened to that other Olson guy they signed? He got hurt and fell off the face of the earth.
How about Nellie Olson, out on the prairie?
I’m sure lots of variables will happen between now and next April anyway, so no use getting carried away now.
Maholm’s option won’t be picked up, Ollie to the ‘pen, Lincoln to the rotation. Plus, there’s no way 2012 will be without any injuries for the first basically 60% of the year (like 2011).
Karsten’s success might not be repeatable, in fact it probably won’t be. It’ll likely be an entirely different story next year. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Owens and Locke in there, as well as Justin Wilson getting a handful of spot starts next year.
I wouldn’t exactly say the first 60% was injury free. McDonald was questionable whether he would start the year because of injuries. Lincoln missed out on any chance to make the rotation because of injury. Olsen, who many considered the favorite to be the 5th starter, missed the entire season. Ohlendorf the #3 man in the rotation missed basically the first 60%.
Right there are two starting pitchers who basically missed the first four months and two others who struggled with injuries.
Maholm, Correia, Karstens, McDonald, and Morton have all made 24 or more starts. The wheels fell off in August, but before then we were going with basically those five pitchers.
If a guy makes 1-2 starts (Ollie), then gets injured for rest of year and the other four pitchers, plus the fill-in (Karstens), don’t get injured – that’s an injury-free rotation. Lincoln and Olsen weren’t really contenders for the #5 spot.
They’ll most likely need some extra starters next year, especially with this year’s innings increase for Karstens, McDonald, and Morton. Unfortunately, it’s even more unlikely that all 3 will pitch the entire season.
Lincoln, Morton and McDonald will be locks for the starting rotation IMO.
The club will have to figure out whether Karstens is for real or just had a great first half. Correia has pretty much shown he is a first half pitcher, whether they want to put Correia in the starting rotation and hope he gets off to a good start and then move him when his price is up is something they could consider, otherwise I see them needing at least one starter next year and that is with Lincoln making the rotation. I think if they can get Olendorf cheap, they might keep working with him and hoping he gets it together, they would hate to see him get it together with some other team.
I do agree that the Pirates pretty much know who is going to be on the roster before ST even starts, injuries, cuts and trades obviously could change things.
Unless Lincoln tanks next month, I’d say he’s a good bet for a spot in the 2012 rotation. He’s pitched well as a starter and he’s pitching well at the end of the season, when he would be tiring from the season-long grind.
I hope you’re right. I think he deserves a serious opportunity, he looks a lot better than last year. Let’s see what happens