AJ Burnett being out for 2-3 months was the last thing any Pirate fan would want to see this season. After being acquired on February 19th for two lower prospects, Burnett became the immediate ace of the team’s rotation. After reporting to Spring Training, Burnett participated in Clint Hurdle’s annual bunting tournament, during which he bunted a ball into his eye and fractured an orbital bone.
Absorb that all.
Clint Hurdle’s annual bunting tournament. Out 8-12 weeks. Shattered orbital bone.
“Pirates Pitcher A.J. Burnett Out 8-12 Weeks After Shattering Orbital Bone During Annual Bunting Tournament.”
Taken out of context, that headline sounds like an April Fools’ joke. It seems almost surreal, for lack of a better word.
Factor in Charlie Morton’s hip surgery this offseason and the Pirates rotation is missing two of its key components.
The rotation was last year’s recipe for success in the first half. The rotation’s combined ERA was 3.62. They held their hitters to a batting average of .260 while only allowing them to reach base at a .322 clip and keeping them to a .396 slugging average. After the All-Star Break, however, the pitching deteriorated incredibly, going from a 3.62 ERA to a 5.04 ERA, a full 1.42 difference. While the first-half rotation kept hitters to a .260/.322/.396 slash line, the second half allowed a .304/.367/.472 slash – the difference in batting average was 44 points, the difference in on-base percentage was 45 points, and the difference in slugging average was a whopping 76 points.
However, going over last year’s miserable pitching performance is no different than beating a dead horse. This year’s staff has to be different if the team wants to succeed at any point in the season. For some insight as to how the staff would do, I looked toward Bill James’ 2012 projections, courtesy FanGraphs.
Assuming our rotation, pre-injuries, was going to be comprised of Charlie Morton, James McDonald, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Karstens, and Erik Bedard, the combined ERA would have been around 4.14, using Bill James’ projections.
So now instead of having to make a difficult decision about who we need to kick out of the rotation to make room for Burnett, we get to watch Brad Lincoln make 2-5 starts at the beginning of the season.
But who should make the starts in place of Morton and Burnett? The immediate candidates would be Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln, the duo of whom will undoubtedly get the jobs. However, the question must be asked: are those two the best the Pirates can do?
The only player still on the roster from last season who made one start in 2011 (no thanks, Ross Ohlendorf, Brian Burres, or Aaron Thompson) is Jeff Locke. Part of the “Altoona Four,” Locke suffered a huge decline, much like every other member of the famed Altoona Four. In four starts for the Pirates last season, Locke threw 16.2 innings with an ERA of 6.48. His FIP number was worse, at 6.75. he Pirates should probably start him in either Indianapolis or, depending on his Spring Training performance, Altoona. He is as valuable to the rotation at this point in his career as Akinori Iwamura was to second in 2010.
What about the players that Neal Huntington signed this offseason? Could any of Kris Johnson, Jo-Jo Reyes, or Daniel Cabrera make a contribution to the rotation more than Lincoln/Correia?
Signed as a minor league free agent this offseason, Johnson was given an invitation to Spring Training. Johnson has not played an out above the AAA level, and he even struggled there, with an ERA of 6.09 in 49 starts. I will be surprised if he places anywhere above AAA.
Reyes started 25 games and relieved in 4 others last year for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles. His 5.57 ERA is rather disheartening, especially considering it was hardly affected by the difficulty of the division – he had an ERA of 5.81 in 2008 for the Braves, where he started 22 games. He could be a LOOGY, so I would count him out of the rotation.
30 year old Daniel “Wild Thing” Cabrera has not played in the Majors since 2009 with the Nationals/Diamondbacks. He has a career 5.10 ERA in 155 starts, so he does have experience. He pitched in the minors in 2010, compiling a record of 0-3 in 5 starts with an astronomical 7.09 ERA.
I honestly don’t see anybody in the minors that could even start one game for the Pirates in 2012, even if all the members of the rotation have both arms amputated. Sadly, Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln appear to be our best options as #4 and #5.