You know what? I’m tired of being negative about this off-season. I still don’t think that things are going to play out terribly well for the Pirates this winter, but I also don’t think I’ve done a good job of making it clear that I don’t think the Pirates are breaking up the 1927 Yankees again. Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm and Garrett Jones (should he be non-tendered) are all replaceable. They’re not All-Stars. They might be the best the Pirates can do for 2012, but doesn’t just thinking that make you feel dirty? I hope the Pirates can do better. So let’s sit down and think of ways Neal Huntington might be able to improve this team this winter, because otherwise, it’s going to be an awful and negative off-season.
Right now, the Pirates have two decent starters (Morton, McDonald) and three guys that can start but that shouldn’t be relied on (Correia, Lincoln, Karstens). If they can find two starters this winter better than the bottom three guys, their rotation gets quite a bit stronger and it has some real depth in the case of something like Morton being slow to recover from his hip injury. So where will two starters come from?
David Todd has been beating the “Chris Leroux for the rotation” drum for quite a while and I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the idea at first, but I’m slowly warming up to it. When Leroux was a freshman at Winthrop in 2003, he was a catcher, but he converted to the other terminal of the battery over his career there and the Marlins drafted him as a pitcher in 2005. He didn’t pitch in 2006, though, because of Tommy John surgery and the Marlins moved him to the bullpen pretty quickly and he stayed there as he struggled with control since. The Pirates seemed to fix his control problems this year, though, and he’s become a pretty extreme groundballer to boot (after his rough start in Altoona, he only gave up one homer in 86 innings between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh). He hasn’t started much, but then he hasn’t pitched much at all, either. He is starting in the Domincan Republic this winter, which should get him stretched out a bit. I’m not at all sure that he’d be able to make the transition to the rotation, but when you’re looking at giving innings to Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln and Jeff Karstens may be one of your best starters, it wouldn’t hurt to give him a chance in spring training and see what he does with it.
The Bucs don’t have many internal options that are immediately better than Leroux (I’d say the jury’s out on Owens and Locke for now until they can prove themselves a bit more at Triple-A), so they’ll almost certainly look outside for rotation help, too. I don’t think they’ll pull a trade for a pitcher because of the pitching they have in the organization, so they’ll likely look to the free agent market. A lot of people have already connected them with Jeff Francis. Francis wouldn’t be a terrible fit (he pitched quite a bit better than his 4.82 ERA with the Royals last year), but given his past shoulder struggles his dip in velocity (his fastball dropped from 87.2 to 84.7 in 2011) worries me a bit. Still, he’d be a decent Paul Maholm analog that would at the very least add some depth.
It’s possible that they might be able to lure someone like Erik Bedard to Pittsburgh on a decent-sized one-year deal to prove that he’s healthy and can handle a full season’s worth of work. Rich Harden and Brandon Webb (who the Pirates were interested in last year) are similar possibilities. Harden made 15 starts in Oakland last year and his strikeout numbers were pretty much in line with his career rates, but he got rocked pretty badly (17 homers in 82 2/3 innings). Plus, he’s Rich Harden. The chances he’s actually healthy are probably small. Webb was supposed to be ready to pitch in 2011, but he only made four starts in Double-A for Texas and he wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive in those starts. You can put Chris Capuano into this category, too, as he put up some strong peripherals with the Mets, but gave up some homers and had a pretty high ERA that might scare other teams off. Since lefties tend to pitch well at PNC Park, he could make a nice fit. Dontrelle Willis could fit here, too, as he showed some flashes of his former self in Cincinnati this past year, even though his final numbers weren’t great. The problem here is that the guys most likely to be good in 2012 (Bedard, Capuano) are the guys who aren’t very likely to pitch for the Pirates at all, save an awful market that leaves them looking for teams in late January or early February. The guys that might pitch for the Pirates (Webb, Willis) are more likely to be disasters.
There’s a good chance the Pirates will go after Edwin Jackson, but the guy’s only 28 and his agent is Scott Boras. He’s going to want a commitment beyond what the Pirates are willing to make. That puts him in the Jorge de la Rosa category from last winter: he’s a good pitcher and he’d help the Pirates a lot and whatever they pay him probably won’t kill their budget in 2012, but when he’s 33 and making $15 million and the Pirates need that money to, say, pick up Andrew McCutchen’s option, we’re going to look on that sort of deal a lot less favorably because he’s not good enough to justify that.
There are also some dangerous categories of free agent pitchers for the Pirates this winter. There’s the “Semi Old Guy Who Just Had a Strong Bounceback year” group with pitchers Freddy Garcia and Aaron Harang. Harang’s peripherals didn’t budge from 2010 to 2011, but he moved from Cincinnati to San Diego. Remember that a 3.64 ERA in Petco Park results in an ERA+ of below 100. Garcia had a pretty good year with the Yankees. Guys like that worry me, because there’s a chance you’ll end up in a bidding war with someone that overvalues their bounceback (or that you’ll be the team that does it). There are guys like Jon Garland, who’ve had some success in the past but who are probably past their prime and will likely be awful in the wrong circumstances.
Basically, I think the Pirates are going to have to both open their checkbooks and take a risk to improve their pitching staff in 2012. The outside guys they should be focusing on are high-risk/high-reward pitchers that have injury histories, that need a chance to prove themselves and their health to the world. The Pirates could absolutely get burned by this method, but it’s the only one that really offers them a chance to upgrade their rotation. This is where Leroux being a capable starter would be a huge boon for the team, because then they’d only really have to add one of this sort of guy or because they could roll the dice on a couple of them and not get burned too badly (other than financial) if one doesn’t pan out.
What’s scary here is the variability. If Morton gets healthy quickly and Leroux does a solid Morton impression as a starter and the Pirates can convince one decent free agent to pitch for them and that free agent stays healthy and pitches well, a McDonald/Capuano/Morton/Leroux/Karstens (or Lincoln) rotation actually could be a solid sleeper rotation that would give the team a chance to win most nights of the week. If Morton can’t get healthy and Leroux can’t handle starting and they have to dig deep into the free agent barrel for a pitcher, McDonald/Harang/Lincoln/Karstens/Correia would be an abject disaster of a rotation that probably portends another 100-loss season.
Reality always falls somewhere in between, but upgrading the rotation is the single biggest thing the Pirates can do this winter to make the team better in 2012, besides pulling off some kind of blockbuster trade. Let’s hope Neal Huntington plays his cards right.