First Pitch: How Many Starters Do the Pirates Realistically Need?

Tonight I wrote about how the Altoona Four is providing depth for the majors, as well as trade chips if the Pirates need to go that route. The tendency when talking about any position is to look at the position, find the bare minimum amount of players needed, and start discussing any excess in trade talks. There is never any consideration given to keeping the extra players around for depth.

Take the outfield situation, as an example. Starling Marte will eventually arrive in the majors, which will force one of Alex Presley or Jose Tabata to the bench. The quick reaction is a suggestion that the Pirates could trade one of the two outfielders. But is there any crime in keeping both of them, and using one as a fourth outfielder, or a strong backup should one of the starting three go down with an injury?

When it comes to pitchers, there’s even more of a need for depth. Pitchers get hurt. That’s just their thing. The Pirates had ten starters make at least one start in 2011, and seven of those starters made eight starts or more. In 2010 the Pirates had 11 pitchers make at least one start, and nine starters made nine starts or more. Same story in 2009. Nine starters with one or more starts. All nine made six or more starts, and seven of them made ten or more starts.

This year the Pirates have used six pitchers in the rotation, mostly because of pre-season injuries to A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton, and an in-season injury to Jeff Karstens. Going forward, the Pirates aren’t going to get by on just those six pitchers. Some players will be injured. Some players will struggle. Before the Pirates could consider trading off any starters, here is a look at how many pitchers they would actually need this season.

Erik Bedard - Let’s start with Bedard, as there’s little chance he’s making it through the season healthy. The question for Bedard the last few years hasn’t been “will he get hurt?”, but “when will he get hurt?” He made 24 starts last year. That could be seen as a best case scenario for the Pirates, which means they’d be looking for at least eight more starts.

Kevin Correia - He’s in the rotation now, but he’s not a long term solution, and he’s not a guy who is hard to replace. If I were making the call, I’d move him to the bullpen as depth and bring up Rudy Owens. As I wrote the other day, the Pirates should make that type of move the first excuse they get. Correia’s last start was bad, and the start before that was rough, with five walks in 4.1 innings. With the way Owens and Jeff Locke are pitching in Triple-A, you’ve got to figure that Correia only has one bad start left before the Pirates would have to turn elsewhere.

Charlie Morton - He had a rough start today, and his sinker has been inconsistent this year. But there’s no way he should be removed from the rotation, and the only thing that would make that happen would be an injury.

James McDonald - He’s really stepped forward this year. He and Morton have the most upside, and both are under team control for multiple years. Like Morton, an injury is the only thing that will remove McDonald from the rotation.

A.J. Burnett - He’s been very reliable the last few years, making at least 32 starts in each of the last four seasons. He only missed time this year due to his fluke injury in Spring Training, which wasn’t pitching related. So far this year he’s had two strong starts, and one horrendous outing. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll be in the rotation.

Jeff Karstens - As Kristy Robinson wrote yesterday, he’s moving in the right direction in the rehabbing process. When you talk about replacements for Kevin Correia or Erik Bedard, you’ve got to figure that Karstens will be available to take one of those spots. He’s not a dominant pitcher, but he knows how to pitch, with a good ability to mix up his pitches, and pound the strike zone. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to have him in the rotation throughout the year.

As it stands right now, the Pirates have a five man rotation of Bedard, Correia, Morton, McDonald, and Burnett. Eventually they will need someone to replace Bedard due to his inevitable injury. They’ll also need someone to upgrade over Correia. I would also throw in the need for one more starting pitcher, in the event of an unforeseen injury to someone like Burnett, McDonald, or Morton. That’s a need for three starters, meaning the Pirates need to be eight deep in the rotation.

The Pirates have Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke as immediate options. Brad Lincoln could also serve as a starting option. Justin Wilson needs more time to refine his command, and that’s not a guarantee to happen. I wouldn’t be comfortable calling him up now, but in an emergency he wouldn’t be a horrible option. Jeff Karstens will eventually return, giving the Pirates another starting option. That puts the Pirates at ten starting pitching options, meaning they’d have room to deal two guys as trade chips.

Of course the reality is that the most valuable trade chips — Owens and Locke — are also the guys you’d want as the first options should the Pirates need rotation depth. So unless the Pirates somehow got value from someone like Kevin Correia or Jeff Karstens, or made a bold move and traded Erik Bedard at high value before he could get injured, they wouldn’t have the luxury of valuable trade chips AND strong rotation depth.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 5-0 to the Reds. Game story here, including notes on Morton looking to tweak his sinker.

**Prospect Watch: Gerrit Cole strikes out five in five innings, although he gave up a season high three walks.

**Starling Marte was hit by a pitch and left the Indianapolis game with a hand injury. Nancy Zinni has more here.

**A live report on Gerrit Cole’s start from Terry Mathews.

**Prospect Notebook: Cole and Taillon are on the right track for Double-A.

**The Altoona Four are Providing Depth and Trade Chips.

**2009 Seventh Round Pick Trent Stevenson has retired. Stevenson was one of the nicest guys in the system. These days I find myself pulling more for individual players rather than specific teams. Stevenson is the type of guy you pull for to have success, so I wish him the best of luck and hope he finds that success in his next venture.

**The Weekly Prospect chat will return to its normal Monday time tomorrow at 2:00 PM EST. You will be able to submit questions starting at 8:00 AM.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Murray Passarieu

    They would also have Trevor Bauer as an option soon if they would have taken UCLA’s best pitcher.  I still don’t understand why the consensus among “experts” was Cole.  Bauer was cheaper, signed immediately and will be in the majors soon.  I hope Cole proves me wrong but I watched his whole college career and he was the second best pitcher almost the entire time.  

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Bauer may have been cheaper, signed immediately, and will be in the majors soon, but none of those things mean he’s better than Cole.

      • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Murray Passarieu

        That’s why I said I hope Cole proves me wrong.  I just don’t understand where the evidence is.  Bauer has been better since the start of college; I know that doesn’t apply to pro ball directly, but don’t results count for something?  Anyway, I’m a Bucs fan, I’m rooting for Cole, don’t get me wrong; I just hope it works out.

        • pirateswillwinin2012

          Throws harder, better stuff, better body type…anything else?

        • piratemike

          Murray this IS PIRATES PROSPECTS …..if

    • Kevin_Creagh

      Bauer is like a Lincecum-lite decision scenario.  In 2006, Lincecum was seen as an oddity and an arm injury waiting to happen.  Coupled with his smaller stature (5′-11″ listed), Lincecum was seen as a risk.

      In 2011, Bauer had the odd workout regime (extreme long toss, biomechanical research into throwing motions) and is also smaller for a pitcher (6′-1″). 

      The Pirates at 1-1 HAVE to be right.  Taking Bauer at 1-1 puts a lot of pressure on the team if his mechanics were/are wonky and he injures himself. 
      If the Pirates in 2011 were drafting, say, 5th or 6th and took Bauer that would be a good gamble.

      Geting Bauer and Bradley was a complete coup for the D-Backs, especially since the Bradley pick was a comp pick for Loux the year before and would have been lost if Bradley didn’t sign.

      I like Bauer, too, but Cole has a better array of pitches and a more prototypical size than he does.  I hope they both do well, but Cole does great for the Pirates.

      • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Murray Passarieu

        Thanks for the thoughtful answer Kevin.  I see the reasoning now.  I think Bauer will be OK; he seems like a really smart guy.  But I do see how the Bucs had to be careful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=699375829 Tim W. McCann

    Any chance the Pirates consider dealing one of their young pitchers (I doubt Cole or Taillon would be on that list) for the Cubs’ Brian LaHair? Pirates need a power-hitting first baseman and the Cubs are seeking young pitching. LaHair is somewhat expendable with Anthony Rizzo tearing it up in AAA.

    • pirateswillwinin2012

      LaHair is 29 yrs old making his major league debut, I’ll pass

    • john.alcorn

      They should have already traded some arms to SD for Rizzo in the first place, another opportunity missed.

  • James S

    I’ve been well aquainted with each Pirates season since 1970. I am one of those who do not believe that the Pirates can put all their eggs in the pitching basket and become yearly contenders. It hasn’t come near to happening yet, and how many years now have we been hearing, basically “it’s all about pitching. we have to build a great pitching team, and with arms consistently coming up from the farm and then we will be perennial contenders”?

    I was a big fan of the 1970 through 1979 Pirates, teams which were not even remotely built on great pitching. They were built on having good and exciting hitting throughout most of the line-up. Sure, they always had a couple of real good starters, but the rest were just decent. But it wasn’t a problem to ever be down by say 6 or 7 runs, because the hitting could always bring them back into the game. It was hitting that made the Pirates one of the best and most exciting teams in baseball during the decade of the 70′s. I even was at John Candelaria’s no-hitter in 1976, and although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I remember getting more excitement from the high scoring hitting games of those years, and their uncanny ability to come back no matter how many runs they were down, and win.

    All the management individuals of the past 30 years who always harp about building with pitching are not witnesses to the Pirates good years. They know next to nothing about what made them great every year in the 70′s. But any fan from those years should know.

    I might even buy into the ‘build with pitching’ mantra if they would use them to bring in better hitting through trading, but they don’t even do that, and hitting was and is the most glaring weakness every year of the past 30 or so (except for the ’89-’91 seasons, but even in ’92 without Bonilla their hitting began to go south).

    Even if they end up with five great starting pitchers someday, I guarantee it will not make them perennial contenders until they address and fix the huge hitting lack. The ‘build with pitching’  claim only works if they use pitching to acquire good hitting.

    We long-time fans from pre-1980 have witnessed how good hitting beats good pitching in the last two world series’ they were in. The Baltimore Orioles of 1971 had four 20 game winners!! That has never been done previous or since. Was it enough to beat the Lumber Company, a team that even swung a sledge-hammer in the on-deck circle?? Not even close.

    • http://twitter.com/jamesmvargo James Vargo

      Say what you will, he has a point. They just have to do something about the hitting. They have next to none, and almost nothing coming down the pike. Time to play, “Let’s make a deal” NH.