Pittsburgh Pirates front office has faith in starting rotation

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 19, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Neal Huntington could have been speaking for anybody Monday morning.

"When we've been good in the past, it's been primarily because of our starting rotation," he said.

Huntington is the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, an organization that has become even more familiar with the delicate state of a pitching staff and how it makes a team go.

Or in the case of the 2012 Pirates, come to a screeching halt.

Behind A.J. Burnett's one-hit shutout, the Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs 5-0 on July 31, running their record to 59-44. They were three games out of first place in the National League Central and 2½ games away from a wild-card spot, but most importantly, the Pirates appeared poised to clinch their first winning season since 1992.

Then it all came crashing down. And while injuries and other assorted circumstances contributed to a 79-83 finish and a 20th-straight losing season, Pittsburgh's pitching didn't help.

The Pirates' ERA jumped nearly a run from before the All-Star break (3.48) to after (4.38), and it soared to 4.47 in August, September and October, during which they went 20-39.

With a lineup that finished near the bottom of the National League runs scored and on top of the league in strikeouts, the Pirates aren't expected to blow too many teams away once the season starts in April.

Consequently, Huntington and Co. are ready to hang plenty on a starting rotation that looks a little different than in years past.

Burnett, whose 16 wins last season were sixth-best in the National League and his most since '08, has al

ready been tabbed the Opening Day starter.

This time last year, Burnett was recovering after breaking a bone around his right eye while the now-departed Erik Bedard took the ball during the opener.

And following Burnett will be another veteran, lefty Wandy Rodriguez, who went 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA after he was dealt to Pittsburgh from Houston.

Burnett (202 1/3) and Rodriguez (205 2/3) were two of 18 National League pitchers to eclipse 200 innings last year, and James McDonald, despite a disappointing second half, won a career-high 12 games and was second in the league in ERA (2.04) on June 9th.

"They all can definitely do more than just compete," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "They all have the ability to win you ballgames. They well know that (their role), number one, is to give us a chance to win, and number two, it's to pitch deep in games. Usually, those goes hand in hand. I think a year's experience for James is going to help him, Wandy is coming off a very good finish for us ... and A.J., he got a taste of some good stuff last year and I think he wants more.

"We like our three guys a lot."

McDonald, who allowed two runs in five innings during Monday's 4-2 win over the Boston Red Sox, agreed.

"You've seen what Wandy can do, you've seen what A.J. can, you've seen what I can do. I think health is the biggest key for us -- if we stay healthy, we're going to be pretty good," he said. "I think all of us bring something different to the table, we have a unique way of throwing. None of us are similar. Sometimes you get guys and they're sinker-slider guys -- you face them one day, and the next day you say, 'Hey it's the same guy.'

"I think none of us are like that. Everybody has their own little niche and what they do and how they pitch. So I think that's a big plus for us. We can go into series and guys can get three completely different looks."

There are some question marks.

McDonald posted a 7.52 ERA in 12 starts after the break. Hip and shoulder injuries limited Jeff Karstens to 15 starts last season, and he hasn't pitched in a game this spring because of biceps tendonitis.

And the fifth spot is down to either Jeff Locke or Kyle McPherson. While both have impressive minor-league numbers, they have combined for just 13 big-league starts.

Huntington, however, likes the rotation's depth, especially since the recovering Francisco Liriano (break in non-throwing arm) and Charlie Morton (Tommy John surgery) are expected to return this season.

The Pirates also signed 41-year-old Jose Contreras earlier this spring. Contreras is recovering from June elbow surgery and hasn't pitched in a game yet.

Will it be enough?

Time will tell.

Right now, Huntington feels good about the staff's future.

"We think it's deep, we think it's versatile," he said. "It's different looks; it's not one in the same. Different guys do different things, and it's going to make it a little more difficult to advance us. The veteran presence, the ability to take down innings, the ability to give us a legitimate shot to win every fifth day. ... We feel good about our rotation."

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