Around the Horn: Pirates starting rotation
Bucs' staff hopes to take another step forward in 2012
If 2011 was Pittsburgh's "Tale of Two Seasons," its narrator was Kevin Correia.Through mid-July, as the Pirates were turning the National League Central standings upside down, Correia had 11 wins and was an All-Star. Thereafter, he could pick up only one other victory before calling it a season with a strained left oblique, and the Bucs faded with him. Yet the right-hander definitely set a tone, thus it is worth recalling that his signing as a free agent had been shrugged off as borderline insignificant. In Erik Bedard, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington hopes to have engineered Correia II. Bedard, a former elite American League ace with Baltimore, doesn't necessarily raise the profile of the Pirates' starting rotation because his own street cred is at an ebb with a total of 16 victories the last four years, one of them completely missed with injury. However, Bedard definitely raises the rotation's potential. In essentially a swap of left-handers, Bedard takes the place of Paul Maholm, who had his 2012 option declined and subsequently took his own free agency to the Cubs. Some were very puzzled, seeing this as a parallel move. It really wasn't. Maholm was a contact pitcher in a rotation of contact pitchers. Along with incumbent starters James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and Correia, the '11 Bucs were last in the NL in strikeouts with 1,031. Everything about Bedard is hard. He is hard-nosed. He can be hard to get to open up. And he brings it hard. While it has been a few years -- years during which he has shuttled on the DL with a variety of injuries -- Bedard is a guy who in 2007 had 221 strikeouts in 182 innings. The Pirates haven't had a pitcher top 200 in seven years, since Oliver Perez in 2004. "We're pleased to have him. I look for him to have a quality bounce-back season," said Huntington, who felt comfortable corralling Bedard after seeing him on a mound in September. A Trade Deadline acquisition by Boston from Seattle, Bedard made three starts for the Red Sox in September. The significance? It was the first time he had been healthy enough to make September appearances since 2006. While that brings Bedard's durability into question, manager Clint Hurdle needs him to be strong at the outset due to the uncertainty over Morton's availability at the beginning of the season. A true gamer, Morton had an admirably consistent 2011 season, considering that he was coping with a left-hip labrum issue that eventually required surgical repair on Oct. 10. "We expect him to be the guy he was in the first half with a healthy hip," Huntington said. If there is a delay in that, the Pirates can lean on the other veterans while evaluating plenty of candidates who will compete for Morton's spot in the season-opening rotation. McDonald has begun to harness his impressive physical tools, and could be on the verge of a major breakthrough. Karstens tendered some of the staff's most clutch starts last year and, as impressive as his overall numbers were (3.38 ERA), they were blotched by one ugly outing. Excluding an Aug. 5 start against the Padres in which he was rocked for nine earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, Karstens had an ERA of 2.94 for his other 29 games. While there will be immense camp interest in Gerrit Cole, last June's No. 1 Draft pick who along with Jameson Taillon forms the Majors' top tandem of pitching prospects (they ranked No. 8 and No. 11 on MLB.com's recent Top 100 prospects list), he is a future project. Brad Lincoln and lefty Jeff Locke are immediate possibilities to have Morton's back. As is Chris Leroux, who pitched extremely well in 23 relief appearances last season but prepped for a possible bump into the rotation by pitching to a 1.14 ERA in five starts in the Dominican Winter League. The 18 non-roster invitees to Spring Training will include southpaw Jo-Jo Reyes, who gained notoriety last season with a record-tying streak of 28 consecutive winless starts but is considered a pitcher with worse luck than stuff. He'll get a long look. Another non-roster guy, righty Shairon Martis, is a longer shot. The most significant offseason addition may not even be that of Bedard. It could be Rod Barajas, the veteran catcher whose on-field command is trumped only by his clubhouse influence. A year ago, the rotation shuffled through eight different starting catchers, of whom only one -- Michael McKenry -- remains on the 40-man roster. The youngster will now be able to learn from Barajas, a 13-season veteran who has served with six teams. He knows his stuff: Last season, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly entrusted Clayton Kershaw in his care, and the young lefty bagged a Cy Young Award with Barajas as his primary catcher.