Can you name the last true Pittsburgh Pirates staff ace?

Jeff Karstens was the Pittsburgh Pirates "ace" in 2011. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Can you actually name the last true ace the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching staff has had? I bet most longtime Pirates fans can’t even name him. I was thinking today of some of the top players the Pirates have traded in recent memory but couldn’t think of a pitcher. Which then led me to think: When was the last time they actually had a legit ace? I’m not talking about one-year wonders, I’m talking about year in and year out top pitching.

In 2011, Jeff Karstens was arguably the best pitcher on the staff. He pitched in 162 innings and to a tune of 3.38 ERA. He finished with a 9-9 record and a decent WHIP at 1.21. This was a surprise year for him, the Pirates and everyone in baseball. It remains to be seen if he can even duplicate this again even once in his entire playing career. It will probably be the best year of his career. In the previous four years, his ERA hovered around 5.00. Not exactly stellar. Not an ace.

In 2010, the pitching staff was just atrocious. The pitcher with the lowest ERA that topped 100 innings pitched was Ross Ohlendorf and he had a 1-10 record with a 4.07 ERA. Next was Karstens at 4.92, but, hey, at least he won three games. The highlight was James McDonald, but he only pitched 60 innings. In 11 starts, he went 4-5 with a 3.52 ERA. He struggled a bit with control in 2011, but he’s got promise.

In 2009, it was much of the same as 2010. Ohlendorf was probably the best of the bunch that year, beating out Zach Duke. Ohlendorf had a 3.92 ERA, tops for any pitcher that pitched 100 innings. Sad, huh?

In 2008, Paul Maholm actually looked like a rising ace. He pitched to a tune of a 3.71 ERA and tossed over 200 innings while compiling 139 strikouts. Not bad! It was arguably his best year and is strikingly close to his 2011 year. Too bad he has thrown in a few four-five plus ERA years that have his career ERA at 4.36. Not exactly ace material. Wouldn’t be a number one on 90 percent of most staffs.

In 2007, two pitchers showed extreme progress and promise, but too bad that was a promise to suck in the future. Ian Snell (9-12, 3.76 ERA) and Tom Gorzelanny (14-10, 3.88 ERA) pitched extremely well and both pitched at least 200 innings. Stellar right? Snell came back in 2008 and pitched horribly and the Pirates were able to slide him into a package with Jack Wilson to Seattle. That didn’t turn out too well either — Snell was designated for assigment in June of retired after the Mariners briefly after  as snell had a bad stint with the Cardinals minor league teams, and was picked up by the Dodgers in 2011. Gorzelanny pitched horrible (over six ERA) in 2008 and just as worse in 2009. He was traded at the trade deadline in 2009 to the Cubs who traded him two years later to his current team, the Nationals. Safe to say, both were not ace like pitchers. They did have a former 20 game winner on the staff in Matt Morris, but yeah, that was a disaster and he has been terrible for years. He pitched two awful years for the Pirates before he was released.

In 2006, ah, do we have to keep doing this? Again, a horrible year. Best pitcher that compiled 100 innings … drum roll … Duke. He enjoyed a “stellar” 4.47 ERA and 10-15 record. It just gets worse after that …

In 2005, the Pirates thought they had their future ace in Duke, which if you have been reading this whole time, you would know he was not. He almost completed 100 innings in 2005, but did excel to a 8-1 record with a 1.81 ERA. Wow, what happened to him? Other than Duke, the next pitcher that actually completed 100 innings was Dave Williams. Yeah, do you even remember him? He had a four plus ERA but won a career high of 10 games! Yipee.

In 2004, we hit our first pitcher to pose a threat. Oliver Perez! Perez, only 22, had a stellar season. He went 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA. In 196 innings, he struck out a whopping 239 batters. Perez came over with Jason Bay in a trade for Brian Giles, but the next two years were terrible for him and led to a trade to the Mets. In the next four years, he finished with an ERA above 6.00 three times. Yikes … and another one bites the dust.

In 2003, Kip Wells led the staff with a 3.28 ERA and a 10-9 record, but we all know his career went severely downhill. In 11 seasons, his career ERA finished at 4.71. Jeff Suppan was on the staff until the trading deadline when he was flipped to the Red Sox. He was 10-7 with a 3.57 ERA when traded. Suppan would be close to an ace, he might have been for a year, but finished with a 4.69 ERA in 16 seasons, so I’ll keep going.

In 2002, Wells led the staff again with a 3.58 ERA among qualifiers with 100 innings tossed. He actually tossed close to 200 (two short) and notched 100 plus strikeouts. But again, he went severely downhill.

In 2001, much the same for 2001. Williams led all qualifiers (100 innings pitched) with a 3-7 record and 3.71 ERA. After him is Todd Ritchie with a 4.47 ERA. Not much else folks.

In 2000, along came a fella named Kris Benson. He pitched his career year, as well, to a tune of 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA, 187 Ks, and 200 plus innings. Benson wasn’t an ace, though, as he finished his career 70-75 with a 4.42 ERA. This staff also featured Jason Schmidt, but he pitched below-average with the Pirates and only had a few good years with the Giants. Other than that, he was average at best.

In 1999, Ritchie led the staff with a 3.49 ERA and a 15-9 record. Benson and Schmidt both had ERAs over 4.00 that year. Ritchie had a below-average career; he wasn’t an ace by any measure.

In 1998, Francisco Cordova had his best year as well (nice trend we got here). 13-14 with a 3.31 ERA in 220 innings pitched. Finished his career, all with the Pirates, at 42-47 and a 3.96 ERA. Not an ace.

In 1997, the staff featured several big-name players, but none were ace-like. Most were number-two or number-three types, but this was the best rotation so far. Cordova (good year), Esteban Loaiza, Jon Lieber, and Schmidt. Not bad! But they struggled, and it’s too bad they all didn’t have their best career years there that year. Loaiza had one great year with the White Sox and that’s it. Lieber had decent years with the Phillies, but nothing special.

In 1996, it’s time to end this. Denny Neagle. Yes, I’m settling on Denny Neagle. He was a top-10 Cy Young finisher. His last two years with the Pirates were stellar. Even stellar was his 1997 campaign with the Atlanta Braves, where he out dueled the best pitchers in the game. He finished 20-5 that year with under a 3.00 ERA. Neagle was 124-92 and a 4.24 ERA for his lifetime with a 3.44 playoff ERA. Not bad to finish with him.

But, wow, even Neagle isn’t an “awe” ace. It’s been a long time since the Pirates have had an ace. A long time. Perhaps the next “ace” will lead them to the promise land.

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