Appearance of fatigue cracks in rotor systems mainly affects their stiffness content. The stability of such systems at steady-state running is usually analyzed by using the Floquet’s theory. Accordingly, the instability zones of rotational speeds are dominated by negative stiffness content in the whirl response in the vicinity of critical rotational speeds. Consequently, an effective stiffness measure is introduced here to analyze the effect of the crack and the unbalance force vector orientation on the intensity of negative potential and stiffness content in the whirl response. The effective stiffness expression is obtained from the direct integration of the equations of motion of the considered cracked rotor system. The proposed effective stiffness measure is applied for steady-state and transient operations using the Jeffcott rotor model with open and breathing crack models. The intensity of negative potential and stiffness content in the numerical and experimental whirl responses is found to be critically depending on the propagation level of the crack and the unbalance force vector orientation. Therefore, this can be proposed as a crack detection tool in cracked rotor systems that either exhibit recurrent passage through the critical rotational speeds or steady-state running.