Many of the Pirates' most exciting pitchers are still in the minor leagues, so the team's 2011 rotation does not project to be strong, relative to the rest of the league. Within a few years, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia could join Brad Lincoln in a potentially loaded rotation, but that isn't about to happen immediately.
For now, the Pirates have a less electrifying group, including non-tender candidate Zach Duke, the struggling Paul Maholm and a number of organizational arms that probably won't have major roles on the next great Pirates team. But it's not yet time to look too far ahead: here's how Pittsburgh's 2011 rotation will look.
Zach Duke has been a mainstay in the team's rotation for years, but he has posted a 5.24 ERA with 5.6 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 heading into his final season of arbitration. He earns $4.3MM this year and could make $5MM or so in 2011, so Duke is a non-tender candidate. The lefty has been unlucky, so Pittsburgh could keep him around and hope for a rebound season.
Paul Maholm has a 5.43 ERA with 4.6 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 and would be another non-tender candidate were it not for the extension he signed in 2009. Mahom will earn $5.75MM next year and will likely start for the Pirates.
Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf, two products of the 2008 deal that sent Xavier Nady to the Bronx, are both injured, but both have turned in respectable seasons. Karstens has a 4.88 ERA in 19 starts with just 2.0 BB/9 and Ohlendorf had a 4.07 ERA before hitting the disabled list with a shoulder strain. Karstens will go to arbitration and Ohlendorf, a possible super two, may qualify as well. Both will definitely be cheap in 2011 and will presumably have the chance to make the team's rotation.
Brad Lincoln and James McDonald have both had up and down seasons. The Pirates let Lincoln start the year in the minors, where he pitched to a 4.12 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. He struggled to match that production in the majors and may stay in the 'pen for the remainder of the month. Lincoln has the upside of a number 2-3 starter, according to Baseball America, but the Pirates have been cautious with the right-hander so far, so they're probably not going to rush him into the major league rotation next spring.
McDonald has pitched inconsistently since the Pirates acquired him for Octavio Dotel, mixing three dominant starts with as many duds. He's striking out lots of hitters (8.7 K/9) and has a 4.17 ERA as a Pirate, but the 25-year-old will likely have to earn a rotation spot out of spring training if he is to start.
Charlie Morton, Brian Burres, minor leaguer Michael Crotta and Daniel McCutchen (yet another product of the apparently successful Nady deal) provide the Pirates with depth arms, but limited upside. Donnie Veal would have been in this group, too, but the left-hander recently underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss most of 2011.
The Pirates have every reason to look forward to recent additions Taillon, Allie and Heredia, but Allie is the oldest of the three and he's just 19. Owens, Locke and Morris all reached AA Altoona this year and posted excellent overall numbers. They're closer to major league success than, say, Heredia, but it's far too soon to expect them in the major league rotation.
Instead, the Pirates will probably call on Duke, Maholm, Ohlendorf, Karstens, McDonald and others next year. GM Neal Huntington will, in all likelihood, pass on Cliff Lee and other elite pitchers and look into signing a dependable free agent arm. Club president Frank Coonelly is frustrated by the current edition of the Pirates and the team doesn't have many guarantees for next year. If a reliable pitcher like Dave Bush, Jake Westbrook or Kevin Millwood became available at the right price, the Pirates could bolster their rotation depth through free agency.