What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, the Pirates were projected to be just as bad as they were in 2010 when the team posted an abysmal 57-105 record. After all, the three "big" free agent signings going into last season were Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, and Kevin Correia. The focus was still on the future of the team as Pirates fans hoped for Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata to develop. 2011 was supposed to be a breakout season for the young bats while the pitching staff was supposed to be the team's achilles heel.
Instead, the young bats went south. Alvarez had a terrible year, Tabata missed 70 games due to multiple injuries while McCutchen and Walker made minimal progress. The pitching, however, was through the charts successful. At one point, the Pirates had three starters (Morton, Maholm, Karstens) ranked in the top 20 in NL ERA. As a result, the Pirates found themselves leading the NL Central in mid-July while stunning all of baseball with their quick turnaround.
Their mid season success then turned to a second half collapse, leaving the Pirates 70-92 and a 19th consecutive losing season.
Fast forward to today.
The Pirates enter spring training with expectations of being a competitive ball club. While they still lack the talent to make a serious run at the division, the Pirates may be inching closer to ending the losing streak. With the additions of AJ Burnett and Erik Bedard, Pittsburgh is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, as they did last year with Karstens. Both starters have talent but they also have struggled to be consistent in their own right.
AJ Burnett pitched well in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tigers, last October but had a terrible season otherwise. When Burnett is on his game, he is nearly untouchable, blowing hitters away with a mid-90's fastball, or making them look foolish with his sharp breaking pitches. He is also classified as an innings eater, throwing 200+ innings in 4 of 13 seasons and throwing in at least 150 innings in each of the last 5 years. Nobody doubts the natural ability AJ Burnett possesses. However, his head seems to be the bigger issue. When things are going well, Burnett shows the confidence and swagger of a guy who won 18 games in 2008. When things are going bad, Burnett illustrates self-perpetuated meltdowns that led to his 5.00+ ERA in back to back seasons with the Yankees. The Pirates are hoping Burnett will rebound now that he'll be out of the spotlight in New York.
Erik Bedard has struggled to stay healthy in each of the last five seasons, completing 100 innings just once in that span. Bedard may not throw as hard as Burnett, but he can be just as effective when healthy. The southpaw's curveball is a strikeout pitch as it was advertised in 2007 when Bedard struck out 221 batters in 182 innings. While fans will miss Paul Maholm who has departed to Chicago, Bedard can ease the pain by pitching to his talent. The biggest question, of course, is if he will be able to stay on the field. Bedard needed surgery on his throwing elbow in 2003, then faced oblique and shoulder issues a few seasons later.
The Pirates will enter 2012 with several questions regarding their starting rotation. One of the biggest questions the pitching will have to answer is how good are they? Is Charlie Morton as good as he was in the first half or the second half of last season. Can Jeff Karstens continue to strand base runners at a high rate?
Spring training has begun, the answers will follow in the next 8 months.
My projected rotation: