Pirates Week: Pitching Problems and Replacements

In terms of position players, the Pirates at least have something going. They have four above average position players age 25 or younger, and a few promising players on the way. Better yet, two of the current young players, along with a couple of the up-and-comers, occupy premium spots on the defensive spectrum. It might not guarantee them a powerhouse offense for years to come, but it’s a fine foundation.

When we move to the other side of ball and look at Pittsburgh’s pitching, we see a completely different story. There is plenty of room for optimism, sure, but it’s mostly based on wishes and dreams. It’s certainly not based on the current major league staff. Few, if any, of them will be around in the next few years.

The above paragraph actually undersells the current performance of the rotation. The Pirates starters currently rank 19th with a 4.02 ERA, 23rd with a 4.28 FIP, and 23rd with a 4.14 xFIP. That puts them near the the bottom of the league in all three categories, but they’re not the worst, or even bottom five, team. But that might not be a true representation of the staff’s overall talent. Plenty will change in the next four and a half months, and for the Pirates it might not get better. That’s not just because Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia won’t sustain their current low ERAs. It’s because there probably won’t be many available options for immediate improvement.

Once the season gets underway there are really only two ways a team can improve. They can either call up players from the minors, or they can trade some of those minor league players, and perhaps some major leaguers, for upgrades. The Pirates have some options, though not overwhelming ones, in regards to the former. With the latter, I’m not sure making such a trade benefits the organization’s future. While the market provides plenty of surprises, it’s hard to see a situation where the Pirates find a trade that nets them a pitcher who upgrades the 2011 team, and future teams, while still maintaining the strength they’ve built on the farm.

Take a look at Marc’s top 10 Pirates prospects. There’s barely room for position players there. They have three legit ace prospects in their top four, and none has yet turned 20. Clearly they’re not helping this, or next, year. Furthermore, because they’re young and far from the bigs they probably won’t fetch overwhelming value in a trade. I’m sure every team would love to pick up Jameson Taillon, but at what cost? Could the Pirates get a solid No. 2, under team control for a few more years, for a package based around Taillon and a few other minor leaguers? Even if they could, would it be worth it?

The answers are probably yes and no. The Pirates are really working with a small core of four position players here, and even then three have plenty left to prove. They have only two high-end position prospects on the farm, which provide even less certainty. I’d like to believe — and Pirates fans would really like to believe — that these guys are going to provide a foundation for years to come. But it’s no guarantee. If they trade away some significant farm pieces for a No. 2 and they get less than expected performances from Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Pedro Alvarez, are they really better off? I’d say no, and that they’re better off hoarding their prospects until the team picture becomes a bit clearer. That is, when their current high end prospects are starting to get into the major league conversation.

That leaves them with in-house promotions, and to be sure there could be a few later this year. Rudy Owens, a 23-year-old lefty, is one of the team’s top arms, and he’s currently pitching in AAA. Pat Lackey of Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke recently saw Owens, and while he wasn’t overly impressive, he could still be a mid-season option. The same goes for Jeff Locke, a sinkerballer who has had some success. Bryan Morris is nearing the point where he has to hit the bigs, too. One or all three of these guys could see time in Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be instant successes. In fact, part of the reason to promote them now is to get them experience, so perhaps they can take their lumps now and be more prepared in 2012, when the team could be even more poised for a run.

In yesterday’s installment, I asked what portion of the team’s resources it should use in pursuing a .500 record this season. Find me a Pirates article from a non-Pittsburgh source that fails to mention the futility streak. Hell, I like the Pirates and I’ve mentioned it every time I’ve written about the team. It is so deeply woven into their narrative that it’s like talking about Pete Rose and not mentioning his ban from baseball. Clearly, it would be to their benefit to erase that stigma. But they have so much hope on the way that it’s not worth their while to trade some of that away for a chance at a symbolic milestone. What they get will not equal what they could possibly get from the farm, and for a team that doesn’t quite have all the pieces together that’s an important distinction.

It’s easy to look at the high-end arms in Pittsburgh’s system and fall in love. Taillon has tickled many a scout’s fancy, as has Allie. Even then, Heredia, already 6’6″ and throwing gas at the age of 16, might have the highest ceiling of the group. But as with any crop of prospects, patience is required. That means not going out and making a move to make the team .500 just for the sake of it. While the Pirates would benefit from removing that monkey from their backs, it’s not worth the risk. They have a chance at a bright future, especially with pitching. Unless they have a deal fall into their laps — and it has happened before — things will probably stay the same for the pitching staff in Pittsburgh this summer.

Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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11 years ago

They really need more GM’s like Ned Colletti willing to give up fairly high ceiling arms for over the hill relievers. Anothe J-Mac type deal would give them enough to couple with the arms close to the bigs (Lincoln, Owens, Wilson, Morris, Locke). Also, Maholm is pitching his way to being pretty marketable come July (he has an inflated option for 2012).

11 years ago
Reply to  PiratesHurdles

I mean McDonald’s decent and all, but he’s 26 and hasn’t really proven anything in the big leagues. Walks too many batters, doesn’t consistently strike hitters out, gives up a lot of fly balls.

Like most of those guys, they seem more of what the Pirates have had. Low upside starters who don’t really excel at anything. They’ll have some 1/2 seasons where they look great, but the vast majority of the time they’ll be sub-par.

11 years ago
Reply to  B

You can’t expect Huntington to just get high upside starters back in trades for 37 year old washed up middle relievers. The fact that he got what he did for Dotel is amazing. Huntington knows you can’t get high upside starters like this either which is why he has drafted pitching so heavily the last three years. It’s going to take time.