Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 Season Projections: Starting Rotation

By Troy Pfaff

When talking about a professional sports team’s prior season, the “roller coaster ride” cliche is often used to describe the ups and downs of the year. For the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2011 was one-hill coaster.

Opening Day through July were the long, anticipatory climb up that hill. The view from first place in the National League Central was awesome- looking down and seeing the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinatti Reds and St. Louis Cardinals all behind us was more than refreshing.

Yet, the whole way up, you couldn’t help but think about the way down. You knew it had to come. It was inevitable. After all, it’s still the Pittsburgh Pirates. A young team spending less money on its major league team than any other organization in the league. The hill had to come.

And come it did, on July 26 in the form of a major league umpire. The less I write about that night the better I’ll sleep, so we’ll leave it there

Just know it was literally all downhill from there. The Pirates would lose 12 of their next 13 games and never smell first place again, finishing with a 72-90 record and the fourth spot in the Central.

One of the biggest reasons for Pittsburgh’s stellar first half play was the starting rotation pitching out of their minds. The emergence of Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton were crucial. Karstens posted a sub-2.00 ERA in 76.1 June/July innings, while Morton’s ERA sat at 2.45 after 68 innings through May.

Paul Maholm also had an ERA around 3.13 through July, while Kevin Correia was among the league leaders in wins through June and ended up being named an All-Star.

After July 26, essentially every starter’s numbers ballooned, and down went the ship.

This season, the Pirates will look to emulate their play from the first half of last season, and the improved starting rotation thinks it can do so.

Maholm, who finished the year with a 3.66 ERA, has since signed with the Chicago Cubs, but the Pirates brought in lefty Erik Bedard and righty A.J. Burnett as more-than-viable replacements.

Bedard will pitch on Opening Day and anchor the Bucs’ rotation while Burnett recovers from reconstructive surgery on his right orbital bone after bunting a ball off his face shortly after the beginning of Spring Training. He is expected back in a few weeks.

After Bedard in the rotation come Karstens, James McDonald and Correia. Morton remains out after offseason hip surgery, but should be ready to pitch by April 14, the first day the Pirates will need a fifth starter due to off days.

Here are my predictions for the current rotation.

Erik Bedard

I think Bedard will prove the team’s best offseason acquisition, and would have been my choice to start Opening Day even if Burnett were healthy.

The lefty spent last season with the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox, accumulating a 3.62 ERA over 129.1 innings in 24 starts. As expected, he pitched better in the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field in Seattle than he did in Fenway Park.

His nicest asset, though, is his 8.7 K/9 ratio from last season. To put that in perspective, James McDonald led the Pirates with 142 strikeouts in 171 innings for a K/9 ratio under 7.5. Bedard also struck out 125 batters while walking 48, for a 2.66 K/BB ratio. The Pirates haven’t had a pitcher who can fan hitters like Bedard in years.

The biggest downside for Bedard – and it is big – is his injury history. He has started 30 games in a season only once (2006) and has made just 54 starts in his last three seasons combined. If the 33-year-old can make 25 starts I’ll be extremely happy.

2012 Prediction: 110 IP, 3.63 ERA, 107 K

Jeff Karstens

Karstens’ emergence as a full-time starter after being a long reliever and spot starter for the last two years was great for the team and for Karstens himself.

With an average fastball velocity of 89 MPH and a 70 MPH curveball, he’ll never be a swing-and-miss pitcher. He’s smart, though, and was also pretty lucky last season.

Advanced statistics such as his FIP being nearly a whole run greater than his actual ERA suggest Karstens is in for a regression in 2012. He was certainly a better pitcher in 2011 than he had been to that point in his career and his season wasn’t all luck, but I don’t expect him to put up another 3.38 ERA in 2010.

We also have yet to see how his body deals with a full season of starting games. He made 26 last year.

2012 Prediction: 176 IP, 4.01 ERA, 102 K

James McDonald

Long story short, James McDonald was either really good or really bad last year.

He started the season by going 1-2 in his first five starts with a 7.66 ERA and 15 strikeouts and 16 walks in 24.2 IP, but would accumulate a 2.86 ERA in his next 34.2 innings with 35 strikeouts and 10 walks. His next 26.1 innings saw him walk 18 and strikeout 17 before ending the season well, punching out 75 batters in his final 85.1 innings.

J-Mac is talented. That much is obvious. His fast ball touches the mid 90s, usually sitting around 93-94 MPH. If the 27-year-old can reign in his pitches and avoid his wild streaks, he’ll be a nice starting pitcher.

Unfortunately, things haven’t been extremely encouraging this spring in that regard. He allowed 10 runs on seven hits and seven walks over 3.2 innings last Thursday and finished the spring with an 8.31 ERA.

I don’t think we’ll see McDonald pitch to his full potential this season. At his absolute best, I feel J-Mac could post an ERA in the lower 3’s while striking out a batter per inning. Whether or not he ever brings it all together and does so remains to be seen.

2012 Prediction: 184 IP, 3.90 ERA, 166 K

Kevin Correia

Kevin Correia is the epitomical example of wins being a meaningless statistic in Major League Baseball.

Correia had the respect of his peers at the time of the Midsummer Classic in mid-July, being voted an All-Star by the players of the MLB. The only thing he had really done at an All-Star level was record wins thanks to some run support.

He pitched well in April, finishing the month with a 2.90 ERA, but that number ballooned in literally each successive month. In May, Correia recorded a 4.15 ERA, June saw the righty rack up a 4.45 ERA, a 6.08 number in July and a horrendous 8.41 mark in August.

He finished the year with a 4.79 ERA with a 1.39 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 154 IP.

The only reason I don’t expect similarly bad or worse numbers for the 31-year-old this season is because he is the most likely candidate to be sent to the bullpen once the team’s rotation is fully healthy, which could be sometime in late April. He’ll likely get about four starts before Burnett returns, so he’ll have to do something special to keep his rotation spot.

2012 Prediction: 98 IP, 4.83 ERA, 61 K

I’ll have A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton’s predictions up at some point today when I do the rest of the team’s.

Opening Day is tomorrow against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Game time is 1:35 PM. Sounds like the perfect time to skip class.

Follow Troy on Twitter @TroyPfaff for more Pittsburgh Pirates content

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