Lost In Orbit

There are a minimum of 1,458 innings in a Major League Baseball season. Before the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired the enigmatic A.J. Burnett from the Yankees last month, the starting quintet of Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, and Charlie Morton combined averaged 502 innings pitched per season. Who has averaged the most IP per season in his career? Bedard, a lefty who missed two full seasons in 2003 and 2010. The Pirates now must count on him to rack up strikeouts.
Burnett came to the Pirates in a recent Yankees body dump. New York fans were nervous for a chunk of the winter that the team was standing pat with essentially the same roster from 2011. But then within 24 hours in the middle of January they signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal, and pulled off a traditional blockbuster trade by dealing hitting phenom Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for just as phenom-enal starting pitcher Michael Pineda. Both teams received exactly what they needed. A.J. had finally become superfluous. The Yankees will pay two-thirds of his salary to make him go away.
Burnett was lined up to front the rotation, providing a declining but still above average fastball and hard curve that would carve out at least league average innings munching. The move away from the short right field fence at Yankee Stadium and the AL East into a more favorable environment in the NL Central must have encouraged Bucs fans.
But Burnett broke the orbital bone above his right eye in a bunting drill this week, and after surgery, likely won’t make his debut until the end of May. So where will the innings come from?
None of the aforementioned five pitchers has thrown 200 innings in a season. According to Fangraphs, they collectively provided six wins above replacement level in 2011.
Charlie Morton, who does an eerie impression of Roy Halladay’s mechanics on the mound ate up right-handed hitters last season, but was torched to the tune of .364/.460/.500 by lefty swingers. He resurrected himself last year, but Baseball Prospectus sees him as possibly missing part of the season.
Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens have rarely finished games with efficiency. McDonald, who has a plus fastball but very little else that fools hitters, had a rough start but was more effective as the season wore on.
Manager Clint Hurdle led the league in relievers used in 2011, but he didn’t have much choice: no pitcher threw 120 pitches in a start last season. This will put a premium on versatility in the bullpen. Hurdle would be wise to eschew a “defined roles” approach to the ‘pen, cultivating a corps of hurlers from among Evan Meek, Jeff Locke, Brad Lincoln, and Chris Resop to soak up middle innings.
Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, two extremely hard-throwing right-handers, are expected in the future. They have high ceilings as starting pitchers, but neither is close. In fact, Cole, taken first overall in last June’s draft, had a shaky debut in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. His fastball has been clocked up to 101 mph, but his results have yet to match his raw stuff.
There’s no rush, because there simply isn’t enough talent here to push the Pirates into contention in 2012. It’s good to have competition, and a lot of baseball people look forward to it being provided in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the position players will continue to make progress. They’re very young. There will be hope in Pittsburgh when it could make sense to get a little old.