Off to a 15-10 start, the Pirates are already the darlings of baseball, and for good reason. At this point it’s oft repeated that Pittsburgh hasn’t had a winning season since 1992. Last year’s 79-win season, when the Pirates got off to a similarly hot start, actually tied the most victories the team has had in any year since that point.
Baseball is practically begging for the Pirates to be relevant again.
Back on June 18, 2012, the Pirates held a record of 34-31, and they were beginning to get serious attention as a legitimate contender in the NL Central. On that day, I wrote that the Pirates had a bright future, but, due to their starting pitchers performing over their heads to that point, would eventually regress before the end of the season.
It gives me no pleasure that I eventually turned out to be right on that point. Likewise, it gives me no pleasure that I am about to make the exact same prediction about the Pirates for 2013 — and for the exact same reasons.
In short, the Pirates have a lot of talent on their major league roster. However, all of that talent is in the everyday lineup, which has a development curve far beyond the pitchers at this point. All-Star Andrew McCutchen leads a deep lineup that includes a bevy of solid complementary pieces such as Neil Walker, Garrett Jones, Russell Martin and Starling Marte. If Jose Tabata comes into his own and Pedro Alvarez builds on 2012’s positive step forward, the lineup could be downright dangerous.
On the other side of the ball, however, this is a starting rotation that could be even worse than the staff that yielded ERAs of 4.39 and 4.65 in August and September, respectively, in 2012.
A.J. Burnett, at 36 years old, is a year older and, quite frankly, unlikely to repeat his 2012 numbers, which were among the best of his career. Likewise, it’s something of a surprise that James McDonald remains in the rotation. The former Dodgers prospect was lights-out before the All-Star break last year but absolutely horrific afterwards. So far in 2013, he’s proven to be exactly who he is, sporting a WHIP of 1.46. Wandy Rodriguez, acquired in a 2012 trade, might end up being the best pitcher in the Pittsburgh rotation.
Behind that trio, things fall of sharply. The team’s fourth pitcher on the depth chart is former Giants southpaw Jonathan Sanchez, who almost certainly shouldn’t be on a major league roster at this point. After some ugly numbers with Kansas City and Colorado last season (good for a negative-1.7 WAR overall), Sanchez has been even worse in four starts this season, sporting an enormous WHIP of 2.56. Behind him in the No. 5 slot is Jeff Locke (no, not the UCLA punter), a 25-year-old marginal left-handed prospect with good command but short on pure stuff.
In short, Burnett and Rodriguez are solid major league starters, but they aren’t rotation leaders, and behind them in the Pittsburgh rotation are nothing but question marks.
The returns of Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens from injuries may help the team. However, relying on them, too, as pieces of a playoff-aspiring rotation is dubious at best. Liriano hasn’t had a WHIP below 1.47 since 2010, and Karstens has never had a full, healthy season as a starter. The fact that he’s struggling with shoulder issues should scare anyone rooting for the Pirates. Charlie Morton may also figure into the rotation picture, but he has a career WHIP of 1.56 at 29 years old.
The good news for the Pirates is that the team’s top two prospects, right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, are both pitchers, and both project as future No. 1 or No. 2 starters in the big leagues. Cole, in particular, is getting tantalizingly close to major league-ready, but he also doesn’t project as an immediate impact player, at least not right now. Taillon, on the other hand, will likely spend at least half of this season in Double-A before moving up a rung.
What this all means is that the Pirates have a chance to be very good beginning around 2015. The team wisely locked up McCutchen through 2018, and Alvarez and Tabata will still be under team control for the next few years. Moreover, the front office’s ability to judge veteran talent has improved dramatically (the acquisitions of Burnett, Rodriguez and Martin stand out), meaning no more inexplicable Matt Morris-type acquisitions.
However, this is a rotation that is flatly awful behind its top two starters — who shouldn’t even be top-two starters. Ultimately, just as in 2012, this year’s edition of the Pirates will, sooner or later, fall victim to that lack of starting pitching.
We’ll see you in 2015, Pittsburgh.