Is the Pirates starting rotation good enough to compete for NL Central crown?

Signing free agent Edwin Jackson could be the boost Pittsburgh's rotation needs. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

After a long hiatus to get my grad school career going in a positive way, your favorite Pirates enthusiast is back to write for Through the Fence Baseball, and I’m happier than ever to be doing it!  With the offseason well underway, and the Pirates unsurprisingly not in the running for the top free agents, let’s take a look at the team’s biggest area of opportunity — its pitching rotation — and see what the organization can do to make it competitive with the rest of the NL.

As it stands, the rotation is slated to contain Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Erik Bedard in some order.  Brad Lincoln and Daniel McCutchen are expected to get the opportunity to compete for a spot as well. Let’s be honest, I’m not blown away by that rotation and neither are many baseball executives, for that matter. With the NL Central appearing to be much weaker (assuming Prince Fielder leaves the division) and a young core of bats as well as a solid bullpen, the team may truly be one or two solid pitchers away from competing for a division crown beyond July 31 in 2012.

If I were a Pirates executive, the first thing I would do right now it shop Correia. His stats last season — 12-11, 4.87 ERA, 1.43 WHIP — were somewhat misleading when you consider the team gave him an insane amount of run support that wasn’t provided when other pitchers were on the mound. Call it a coincidental statistic anomaly if you’d like, but it’s the truth — the team scored runs for Correia they didn’t for other pitchers, and he wasn’t nearly as good as his April-June numbers (10-6, 3.79 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) indicated. If I’m a Pirates exec, I’m moving him and his $4 million salary for a mid-level prospect now before he implodes next season.

The next thing I’d look to do is to find a starter who can eat a lot of innings while providing consistent pitching. The first name I’m throwing out is one all too familiar to Pirates fans: Paul Maholm. With everything the team has gone through over the past five seasons, Maholm has been a steady pitcher, posting a career line of 53-73/4.36 ERA/1.42 WHIP with the organization. Last season, he suffered from the exact opposite of what Correia thrived on; the team gave him little to no run support in over half of his starts, and he limped to a 6-14 record with a 3.66 ERA and 1.29 WHIP (further proof that a pitcher’s record in no way indicates how good he is). Aside from last season, when he was placed on the DL in August, Maholm has proven to be a successful innings-eater and should do much of the same if he were to return to the Pirates next season. I think two years, $12 million sounds like fair value for him, and the team can certainly afford that.

Looking at other free-agency options, there are some interesting names that might also appeal to the Pirates. The best option available has to be Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), and though he may be on the upper cusp of what they’re willing to spend, he’d be worth the money. He’s young, still reaching his prime, and he knows how to win having pitched for the Cardinals last year. Moreover, a signing like that would help inspire a little fit of excitement among the fan base. If the team is willing to offer something along the lines of three years, $30-$33 million he could be theirs and serve as a nice segue to the Gerritt Cole, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie era. Javier Vazquez is an interesting name, as well. He’s probably a little older than the team would like, but he has a proven ability to stay healthy and eat 180-200 innings a season, which is something the team has lacked in the past. One year in the $6-$8 million range makes for a reasonable signing. Joe Saunders and Joel Pineiro could also make sense for the team, as do Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis because of their connection to Clint Hurdle in Colorado.

Like I’ve already said, the NL Central is wide open going into 2012.  The Brewers look to be a lot weaker without Fielder and the possible suspension of Ryan Braun, and the Cardinals no longer have Albert Pujols, who hit better at PNC Park than any Pirates player ever has (.376/.452/.718, 29HR, 85RBI in 89 career games in Pittsburgh). I’m not entirely sure where the Reds are at right now after a drop off last season, and Houston and Chicago are still a step behind. The Pirates have a golden opportunity in 2012 if they are willing to capitalize on it, and that starts with improving the starting pitching.

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