In 2011, the starting rotation for the Pirates consisted of Paul Maholm (4.03 ERA), Jeff Karstens (4.01), Charlie Morton (4.08 ERA), Kevin Correia (4.37 ERA), and lastly James McDonald (4.46)—Brad Lincoln also had a few spot starts during injuries. Kevin Correia somehow managed to get 11 wins before the All-Star break, and then seemingly proceeded to nosedive for the remainder of the season. James McDonald was spotty at best and never really gave anyone a reason to have faith in him. Karstens was strong, with an impressively slow curveball, but struggled through a few injuries. Morton and Maholm were both consistent but struggled to get run support so their win-loss records never showed their true performances.
The problem with Maholm and Morton being the best pitchers in the rotation was that either one of them would have been a number three in the rotation—at best--on any other ball club. The rest of the rotation was really an interesting bunch. Karstens performed well at times but really could’ve fared better as a middle reliever. Correia spent a majority of his time in San Francisco and San Diego as a middle reliever before coming to Pittsburgh and never had an ERA below 5 in time that he did spend as a starter. Lastly, James McDonald was drafted in 2002 by the Dodgers and spent nearly a decade in the minor leagues trying to figure out whether he belonged on the mound or in the outfield.
The main point is that the "rotation" was not much of a rotation at all. It consisted of two mediocre starters and some middle relievers with a few spot starts under their belts, and to put it in the easiest terms possible: No one was prepared to throw for as many innings as they did. The reason for the collapse is easily blamed on exhausting the arms of the starting rotation. The bullpen was never an issue, they spent the second half of the season digging the starters out of holes and Joel Hanrahan collected 40 saves. This is not to say that Hurdle put the starters on the mound for too long and too often, it’s more to say that the starters were never prepared for innings of that multitude.
A year later Maholm had left to give free agency a shot and had signed with the Chicago Cubs, and Neal Huntington had decided to attempt to replace him in the lineup with lefty free-agent Erik Bedard. Correia had been done with after being dropped to bullpen and then shut down with an oblique strain the previous season. Huntington took a chance on aging pitcher A.J. Burnett, who the Yankees were trying so badly to get rid of that they were willing to pay over half of his salary for the two years remaining on his contract.
With those two deals the rotation consisted of Burnett, Bedard, Karstens, Morton, and McDonald, with Brad Lincoln once again providing a few spot starts. The addition of Burnett proved to be a great deal. He pitched well putting up an ERA of 3.52 with a 16-10 record, and was the marquee starter in the rotation. The addition of Bedard proved horrible. He never seemed to be able to hit his spots, and spent virtually every inning working his way out of trouble. He also had to work through a few injuries and never really looked back to his old form. Through it all, he didn’t spend the whole season with the bucs after being released following the trade-deadline addition of Wandy Rodriguez.
Although Burnett and Wandy were proven starters and never really faltered, the rest of the rotation still consisted of pretty mediocre guys. McDonald had a great first half of the season, but once the all-star break was over he looked as if he had never pitched an inning of professional baseball. Morton and Karstens both had strong starts to the season, but they both struggled with injuries and ended up having to be shut down for Tommy John-Surgery.
The 2012 season looked a little more promising than the previous season, but it once again ended with a post all-star break collapse. The bucs went from 16 games over .500 at the break to 3 games under .500 at the end. Although this downfall could be attributed to injuries and a major drop in offensive production, the starters also completely started to fall apart. McDonald went off the deep end, and although Burnett and Wandy continued to show good stuff, they did not look as impressive as they had at the start. The bullpen was once again impressive, and is a department that Huntington and company have continued to perfect over the years. The 8th and 9th inning combination of Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan was one of the best one-two punches in the league. Hanrahan posted 36 saves, and virtually every time Grilli approached the mound you could count on a win being in the books.
The 2013 season has been an interesting one. At the beginning of the season the rotation consisted in order of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, and Jonathan Sanchez. Burnett and Wandy had earned their spots, people were hopeful that McDonald could become more of a consistent starter, Locke had won the starting spot in spring training, and Sanchez had been an off-season addition.
Sanchez was one of four off-season additions to the pitching staff. Jonathan Sanchez, Jeanmar Gomez, and Francisco Liriano had all been acquired via free agency, and Mark Melancon was brought over in a trade that sent closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox.
The Hanrahan trade caused a lot of hoopla initially among fans because no one wants to give up a proven closer; however, that trade seems to be a steal by Huntington as the Melancon-Grilli combination has already provided 27 saves.
The early holes in the rotation seemed to come from Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald. Sanchez started almost every game allowing a few runs and having to be saved by Jeanmar Gomez, and McDonald was as unreliable as a weatherman.
Liriano started the season on the DL, but came back with good timing and great performances. Eyes were eventually opened, and Gomez became a starter while Sanchez was optioned to Triple-A. Gomez has been as impressive, if not more impressive, as a starter as he was coming from the pen, while Liriano has posted some of the best numbers in the MLB with a record of 7-3, an ERA of 2.23, and an average of 9.9 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. Burnett and Wandy have both been impressive with ERAs of 3.12 and 3.59 respectively, but both were sent to the 15-day DL. The absence of the top two starters has allowed for two decent spot starts by minor-leaguer Brandon Cumpton, an impressive comeback by Charlie Morton, and the debut of star pitcher Gerrit Cole. Morton has gone 1-1 with an ERA of 2.81, and Cole has gone 4-0 with an ERA of 3.7 while showing an impressive command of the strike zone.
The most impressive piece of the pitching staff has been lefty starter Jeff Locke. Locke lost his first start of the season, but since then he has gone 7-0 in 15 starts while posting the second best ERA in the league of 2.06. With Burnett—and after yesterday’s news of the hiccup in rehab—hopefully Wandy coming back into the starting rotation it will be interesting to see just how the pirates deal with having the issue of too many starting pitchers.
There are a few options. The option of sending Cole back to Triple-A seems to be about 70-30 in favor of keeping him up, so in that situation one would assume that Gomez and possibly Morton would move back to a middle reliever position. I personally think this is the best option, and I also believe it would be the way to solve the problems that have plagued our pitching staff over the last two seasons.
This may seem like a stretch to some, but there is a possibility that if the starters continue to come back strong from injuries as Liriano, Morton, and Gomez have done that the injuries may prove to be a bit of a saving grace for the pitching staff. The ability to take a "break" could possibly save the starters from being exhausted this season. Along with this, moving Morton and Gomez into the bullpen could provide some relief for guys like Justin Wilson and Vin Mazarro, who at some points seem to be overused. Lastly, we may be avoiding exhaustion by having a staff that consists of proven starters the whole through for everyone but Jeff Locke. While Locke has been the most impressive, he also provides the largest risk due to his lack of experience—only having started 10 major league games prior to this season.
While it is true that we need to avoid more injuries, continue to show impressive pitching performances, and keep with the run production the major problem of starting pitching seems to have been solved so far this season. It is a long season, with 81 games remaining, but we have managed to show plenty of good reasons for why this might be the season where the Pirates give something back to the fans for the entire season—instead of just the part before the all-star break.