Power Ranking the Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Staff
While the Pittsburgh Pirates offense has come alive over the past two months, the Bucs were initially staked to their contending position by a tremendous performance from their pitching staff.
Though the pitchers have cooled down a bit, they have remained consistent contributors to the Pirates success. The Bucs have played excellent baseball by combining elite hitting production with above-average pitching.
As the Pirates enter the season's final stretch, it is important for the pitching staff to sustain its strong 2012 performance. Certain pitchers are peaking at the right time, while others are faltering a bit and need to step up their level of play.
On the following pages, I rank the entire Pirates' pitching staff based on expected production throughout the rest of the season.
13. Chris Resop
Resop has been a replacement-level pitcher all season for the Pirates, as he controls his fastball pretty well but does not have much to offer beyond that. His pitches are relatively flat, which leads to a lot of contact and a fair amount of fly balls.
The Pirates are aware of what Resop is at this point, as Clint Hurdle does not hand him the ball in many high-leverage situations. He is capable of eating innings effectively without letting games get out of hand.
It would be a surprise if Resop's performance varied much during the final two months of the year, and if Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson are called up in September, Resop's usage may dwindle even further.
12. Tony Watson
Watson is another player who mostly is what he is at this point. He has been more effective than Resop, but Watson is an average left-handed reliever who does not excel against left-handed hitters. He gets a fair number of strikeouts but does not induce many ground balls.
The Pirates will occasionally turn to Watson in later innings, but he is not one of the relievers that Clint Hurdle relies upon. The Bucs are more likely to turn to Jared Hughes or Chad Qualls in the seventh inning than they are to turn to Watson.
Watson does at least have the good strikeout numbers, so there is potential for improvement if he can force more ground balls. But at the moment, he is another candidate to lose innings to Wilson or recently-promoted Jeff Locke.
11. Kevin Correia
Correia has tempted fate as a member of the Pirates' rotation for much of the season before recently being removed from the rotation following the Wandy Rodriguez trade. His strikeout numbers have dropped in each season since joining the Pirates, and at this point, Correia is a marginal No. 5 starter at best.
Yet as a spot-starter and long-relief man, the Pirates could do worse than Correia. Jeff Locke essentially can play the same role, but Correia provides some value in the depth he gives the Bucs.
At some point, Correia could have been expected to return towards his better performances of 2009 and 2010, but that ship has likely stalled. He has performed adequately over the last month or so, so he is worth keeping around for the depth he provides.
10. Chad Qualls
The recently acquired Qualls has put together a mediocre season in 2012, following a similar performance in 2011. His strikeout rate has dropped, and he has been no better than a replacement-level pitcher this season.
On the surface, it does not seem that Qualls is worthy of pitching important innings over Tony Watson, let alone pitchers like Morris or Wilson. The only Pirate pitcher who has performed worse than Qualls this year is Resop.
Yet Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle clearly see something in Qualls, the same way they did in Jason Grilli year ago. If the Pirates can turn him around, he can own the seventh inning for this team and replace most of Brad Lincoln's production.
9. Jeff Locke
At this point in his career, Jeff Locke is already capable of producing as a quality No. 4 or No. 5 starter. Locke comes off an excellent season in Triple-A and a strong Thursday-night debut with the Pirates.
Locke will essentially be asked to play Correia's role for the rest of the season, chipping in longer relief appearances and perhaps getting the occasional spot start. He is a better pitcher than Correia and deserves to be more prominently featured.
It is interesting to see Locke called up before Wilson and Morris, who each fit into more of a relief mold. Clear the Pirates are high on Locke, and he has the ability to really help this team over the final two months of the season.
8. Jared Hughes
Hughes has had a decent season in Pittsburgh, but his front-line numbers are much more impressive than his peripheral statistics. Hughes has good control and induces a tremendous number of ground balls, but he strikes out less than five batters per nine innings.
The formula has worked well enough so far, and as a result, Hughes has become the leading candidate to pitch the seventh inning. The job seems to be his to lose.
Given the Pirates' strong infield defense, Hughes may not regress too severely over the remainder of 2012. It will help the Pirates to have one extreme ground ball pitcher down the stretch.
7. Erik Bedard
Bedard has been very inconsistent this year, managing to stay healthy but struggling with his control and failing to pitch late into games. That said, the left-hander has been distinctly above average during the first four months of the 2012 season.
At the moment, Bedard is probably the Pirates' No. 5 starter, a testament to the depth of the Pittsburgh rotation. He is unlikely to be replaced unless he gets injured or falls into a prolonged slump, however.
Bedard's curveball looked fantastic in his most recent start, and if he rediscovers his old form the Pirates will have three really good strikeout pitchers at the top of their rotation. Yet this Pittsburgh team is hitting well enough that what they need most from their pitchers is consistency, and Bedard has not provided that this year.
6. Jeff Karstens
Consistency is something Jeff Karstens provides in bunches. Karstens is essentially the same pitcher in 2012 that he was in 2011, walking very few batters while maintaining a relatively low strikeout rate. He has upped that low strikeout rate to a respectable number this year, making him a pretty valuable pitcher for the Pirates.
Karstens is still a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, but he is very dependable. He may actually be relatively interchangeable with Wandy Rodriguez at this point in their respective careers, though Rodriguez has a better track record.
The current danger with Karstens is that he is giving up a tremendous amount of fly balls. With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in the outfield, those fly balls are much less likely to turn into hits, but Karstens may see a spike in his home run rate soon that will hurt his value.
5. Wandy Rodriguez
Wandy Rodriguez has fallen off a bit over the last two seasons, but remains a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Rodriguez has seen a drop in his strikeout rate but has compensated for that drop by improving his command and pitching more efficiently.
The addition of Rodriguez provided the Pirates with a very stable overall pitching staff, as the Bucs really have no weak links in their rotation now. Rodriguez is veteran presence on the mound who should be another consistent arm in the rotation.
Rodriguez is currently performing no better than Jeff Karstens, but he gets a slight edge due to his track record.
4. Jason Grilli
Grilli has put together a fantastic season for the Pirates, rewarding the team for the second chance they gave him late last year. Grilli has recorded nearly 14 strikeouts per nine innings this season, making him one of the most dominant relievers in baseball.
Grilli's performance has made him a reliable bridge to Joel Hanrahan, and he has fully earned Clint Hurdle's trust. If something were to happen to Hanrahan, Grilli could become a successful closer as well.
In Grilli and Hanrahan, the Pirates have two weapons that help them protect leads late. There is no reason to believe Grilli can't keep striking guys out, so he will continue to be a huge part of the Pirates' bullpen.
3. Joel Hanrahan
Hanrahan has actually put together a subpar season by his standards, with a high strikeout rate marred by the fact that he has walked more than four batters per nine innings. Luck and the ability to pitch out of jams has kept the Pittsburgh closer's ERA low, but otherwise his performance has left a fair amount to be desired.
His performance has been improving throughout the year, however, and Hanrahan remains a reliable closer for the Pirates. He still has his elite fastball-slider combo and a slight improvement in control would make him one of the league's best relief pitchers once again.
Given that he is on the upswing, it is easy to see Hanrahan returning to his dominant 2011 form. At that level, he is once again the best relief pitcher on the Pittsburgh roster.
2. James McDonald
McDonald was the Pirates' ace throughout the first half of the season, but he has struggled with his control in the month since the All-Star break. Despite his recent struggles, he has still performed at the level of a No. 2 starter over all of 2012.
The Pirates still look at McDonald as one of their best pitchers, as his arsenal remains nasty and capable of striking any batter out. They key for McDonald will be finding the fastball command that he displayed throughout the first half of 2012.
McDonald showed signs of a turnaround in his most recent start against the Reds, and he has continued to strike hitters out even while struggling with command. He remains one of the Pirates' best starting pitching options.
1. A.J. Burnett
Burnett has not tailed off at all this season and is performing like one of the best pitchers in the National League. Throw out his terrible April start against the Cardinals, and Burnett is posting No. 1 starter statistics across the board.
Burnett is a veteran presence in the clubhouse and has emerged as one of the team's leaders. He is famous for keeping a clubhouse atmosphere light and is one of the most experienced Pirates at playing in pennant races.
At this point in the season, Burnett is unquestionably the Pirates' ace. If they find themselves in a Wild Card playoff, the Bucs will be more than happy to see Burnett take the mound.