The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff was strong for the first four months of the season, but saw a drop off in the months of August and September, as the team fell out of the playoff hunt. During April (combined 2.78 ERA) and May (3.71), the pitching kept the Pirates in games while the offense struggled to click. June (3.97) and July (3.74), the staff remained strong, but saw the regression during the final stretch of the 2012 season.
Veteran A.J. Burnett led the staff, finishing the season with a 3.51 ERA. Burnett’s impact, not only on the mound, but in the clubhouse was strong. Burnett took several players under his wing — James McDonald, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson — who have all attributed learning a lot from Burnett. After Burnett’s final start of the 2012 season on the final game, Manager Clint Hurdle said that he deserved the “Comeback Player-of-the-Year” award for his solid bounce back season with the Pirates after New York traded him prior to spring training.
The Pirates used 10 different starters this season. James McDonald had the tale of two seasons, sporting an impressive 2.37 ERA at the All-Star break. But his second half slide forced him to end the season in the bullpen. Charlie Morton was lost to Tommy John Surgery, and Jeff Karstens battled injuries for the majority of the season. Wandy Rodriguez was a welcome addition to the staff after the Pirates acquired him from Houston at the trade deadline. Two rookies in Locke and McPherson finished the season in the rotation, showing flashes of why they’re both top prospects.
Pittsburgh ranked eighth among National League teams with a 3.86 ERA. The last time the Pirates pitching staff finished a season with an ERA below 4.00 was 1998 (3.91) and the last season in which the team ERA was lower than 3.90 was 1992 (3.35).They also established a club record with 1,192 strikeouts this season, breaking the previous mark of 1,124 set in 1969. The staff finished strong by recording 226 strikeouts in September, the most by the team in any calendar month in franchise history (previous high was 225 posted by the 1969 team also during the month of September).
When the Pirates acquired Burnett in February from New York, the 35-year-old escaped the high pressure of the Yankees, where he had spent the previous three seasons. After suffering a right orbital bone fracture during a bunting competition at Pirate City, Burnett joined the Pirates on April 21st and made an impressive impact. Burnett went 7-0 with a 2.00 ERA in his first 10 starts. It was with Pittsburgh that Burnett said he found joy in the game again after losing it in New York.
Burnett finished the 2012 season with a 16-10 record and a 3.51 ERA. Burnett also notched one complete game in 31 starts with Pittsburgh. He led club with 180 strikeouts and 202.1 innings pitched. The veteran also put together an impressive stretch for the club from May 19th until July 8th (10 starts), where he went 9-0 and a 2.93 ERA. That nine-game winning streak was the longest since Dock Ellis won 13 in 1971. The 35-year-old also tossed a one-hitter at Chicago on July 31 — losing the no-hitter with two outs in 8th — and was named N.L. Player-of-the-Week for week ending August 5th.
Burnett will rejoin the Pirates rotation in 2013. He has one-year remaining on his contract.
McDonald had the tale of two seasons with the Pirates in 2012. In his 17 starts before the All-Star break, McDonald posted a 2.37 ERA. During that time, he was charged with two earned runs or less in 12 of those 17 starts. The 27-year-old also had the second-lowest ERA among N.L. pitchers in May (1.54). McDonald tossed his first Major League complete game on June 21st vs. Minnesota.
After the break, Hurdle reshuffled the rotation, moving the right-hander to the staff’s No.1 arm. McDonald, however, struggled, posting a 7.52 ERA in his final 13 starts after the break. The struggled forced Hurdle to move McDonald into the bullpen, where he made one appearance in relief before the season ended.
McDonald finished with a 12-8 record and a 4.21 ERA in 30 games (29 starts) with Pittsburgh. McDonald will likely be in the rotation for the 2013 season.
Correia posted a 4.21 ERA over 32 games (28 starts) with Pittsburgh in his final year of his two-year contract with the Pirates. When the club acquired Wandy Rodriguez from Houston at the trade deadline, the right-hander was moved into the bullpen, where he made just four appearances before he returned to the rotation. Correia finished strong, posting a 3.14 ERA in his final 10 games.
Correia is a free agent, and will not likely return to Pittsburgh in 2013.
Karstens led the staff in 2011 with a 3.38 ERA and was the club’s most consistent pitcher. He set a career-high in innings (162.1), but injuries this year kept him from reaching the 100 inning mark. Karstens spent close to two months on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation after making just three starts to begin the year. While rehabbing, a hip flexor injury delayed his return. The same hip injury sidelined him again in August, where he missed two more weeks of action. Once healthy, Karstens was moved into relief where he finished the season as Hurdle decided to get looks at prospect Kyle McPherson in his spot.
Karstens posted a 3.97 ERA over 19 games (15 starts) with Pittsburgh. The 30-year-old will be third time eligible this offseason.
When Rodriguez was first acquired from Houston at the trade deadline, the left-hander struggled to start. Rodriguez admitted that he tried to justify the trade, trying to do too much. But it was after a two-inning relief appearance in the club’s 19-inning game in St. Louis that Rodriguez was finally able to find comfort.
Rodriguez finished the season with a 3.72 ERA in his 12 starts with Pittsburgh and overall a 3.76 ERA between Pittsburgh and the Astros in 2012. Rodriguez has pitched the most innings (1381.2) among all National League left-handers since the start of the 2005 season. He will return to the starting staff for 2013. The Pirates also have a club option for the lefty in 2014.
When Locke joined the big league club in August, the left-hander appeared in relief — a role that he was not familiar with. But Locke was perfect in those two relief outings, not allowing a run over 4.1 innings. Locke was then moved into the starting rotation when the Pirates released Erik Bedard. Locke posted a 5.50 ERA in eight games (six starts). His starts were mixed results, most of the damage coming from a big inning. Locke did finish strong, picking up his first Major League win on October 1st, where he allowed just one run over six frames.
Locke put together his best season in the minors since being drafted by Atlanta out of High School in 2006 with Triple-A Indianapolis this season. The lefty went 10-5 with a 2.48 mark. He also struck out 131 batters over those 24 starts and allowed just two earned runs in his final 31.0 innings with Indy. Locke finished third among all International League pitchers in ERA and fourth in strikeouts.
Locke will enter spring training in 2013 battling for a spot in the Pirates starting rotation.
Similar to Locke, McPherson was promoted to the Majors and was used in relief to start. He made seven appearances in relief — including his Major League debut in San Diego on August 30th — and posted a 1.54 ERA during that span. The rookie right-hander was then given the opportunity to finish the season in the rotation allowing the organization to get ample looks. McPherson put up solid numbers — a 3.68 ERA over three starts — which included a six scoreless outing in his final start of the year.
McPherson began the season on the disabled list after suffering right shoulder inflammation in spring training. He did not make his first appearance until June 16th with Altoona. He battled through Double-A, before shining at the Triple-A level. McPherson posted a 2.48 ERA over 67.0 innings between the two levels.
McPherson is currently pitching for the Tigres del Licey in the Dominican League to build up some innings he missed due to the injury. McPherson will enter spring training batting for a spot in the Pirates rotation.
Morton posted a 4.65 ERA in nine starts with the Pirates before suffering right elbow inflammation on June 1st. Morton had Tommy John surgery on the 14th, and missed the remainder of the season. The right-hander is currently rehabbing his elbow in Bradenton, Fla.
Morton will be second-time arbitration eligible this offseason. He is not expected to return until at least June of the 2013 season.
by Tim Williams
The top prospects in the system — Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon — could start making an impact next year. Cole is almost a guarantee to make his major league debut in 2013. Taillon also has a shot at reaching the majors by the end of the year if he enters the 2013 season pitching the way he did in the final two months of the 2012 season. Both starters have number one upside, giving the Pirates the potential for an exciting rotation down the line. At the latest, they should be together in the majors in 2014.
Two of the upper level options got extended looks in the majors this year. Kyle McPherson has a good three pitch mix, and profiles as a strong number three starter who can eat some innings. Jeff Locke is a similar pitcher, only from the left side. He profiles as a number four starter, and can also eat up some innings. Both pitchers should battle for a spot in the rotation on Opening Day next year.
Justin Wilson is also a starting candidate in Triple-A. Wilson has moved back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, moving to the pen at the end of the year to give the Pirates another lefty reliever in the majors. The club still sees him as a starter in the long-term, although control is an issue. Wilson has the stuff to be a number one starter, but his control issues make him more of a number three or number four starter at best. They could also eventually land him in the bullpen, although the control issues exist in both areas, so a move to the bullpen wouldn’t make that problem go away.
Phil Irwin is an interesting option in the upper levels. The 21st round pick from the 2009 draft reached Triple-A this year, and put up some impressive strikeout numbers. Irwin profiles as a back of the rotation starter, and might end up as a bullpen option with all of the starters the Pirates have in the majors and the upper levels. If he keeps up his dominant numbers (117:24 K/BB ratio in 130.1 IP this year) he could force his way in to the majors in 2013.
In the lower levels of the system the Pirates are building some depth, with a few potential impact starters stepping forward. Luis Heredia could be mentioned in the same sentence as Taillon and Cole when talking about the best prospects in the system. Heredia has the upside to be an ace, and started showing glimpses of that in 2013. A few of the recent prep pitchers are also stepping forward. Nick Kingham (2010 4th round) has a good three pitch mix, and reminds me a lot of Kyle McPherson. Clay Holmes (2011 9th round) and Tyler Glasnow (2011 5th round) both had impressive numbers this year. Neither pitcher has a ceiling right now, as they’re both still developing.
For the short and long-term, the keys to the rotation in Pittsburgh will be Cole and Taillon. In the lower levels there are other guys who could step up and join those two, giving the Pirates an even greater chance at multiple aces in the same rotation. In the upper and lower levels there are also several potential #3-5 starters who can add depth. The Pirates have spent a lot of money and draft picks on pitching. As a result, that is the strongest part of their farm system, and looks like the position with the smallest need for outside help at the major league level in 2013.