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The rotation problem

Rather than waste too much breath on a recap of a game that happened 24 hours ago (we can summarize it thusly: as it turns out Edinson Volquez’s poor peripherals were a sign that his comeback this year is going to be more difficult than the first few starts suggested after all!), I’d much rather talk about the Pirates’ larger pitching problems. As much as the wins on Friday and Saturday were cathartic to watch, I’m having trouble feeling much better about the team on Monday morning than I did on Thursday night after the deflating double-header against the Orioles.

These are the six pitchers that have started games for the Pirates this year, with their ERA, ERA+ for context, and FIP.

Not one Pirate starter has an ERA that’s even close to league average, and only Francisco Liriano, Brandon Cumpton, and Wandy Rodriguez have FIPs lower than their ERAs. That’s not all that useful a stat for Rodriguez, who’s terrible by either metric, or Cumpton, who’s only made two starts.

Spending even two minutes trying to figure out how to fix this mess is exactly why I’ve started to get so concerned about the Pirates this year. It’s true that Cole started slowly with Indianapolis last year and that he’s been more uneven than outright bad this year, so we can leave him to his own devices and be reasonably sure he’ll put things together. And presumably, the Pirates will find some way to get either Locke or Cumpton into the rotation in Rodriguez’s place should he not find his stuff on his rehab assignment this week.

That leaves the three-headed problem of Liriano, Morton, and Volquez. It would appear that, at least for the moment, the Pirates think that Locke and Cumpton are the two best Triple-A options to make big league starts (the sequence of rainouts in Baltimore was really unfortunate for Cumpton, who’s pitched pretty well in two starts and gotten two hard-luck losses — you can certainly argue that he deserves a third start, though the way the schedule falls means that demoting him for Locke just made too much sense), with maybe Casey Sadler close behind them. If you use one of the two to get Rodriguez out of the rotation, though, what do you do about Liriano, Morton, and Volquez? Neither Liriano nor Morton looks quite right, but I don’t know if either one has been bad enough to move out of the rotation. The Pirates admitted out of camp that Volquez would be a work in progress, and besides his replay-aided meltdown a week ago, he’s only made one truly bad start this year. Finally, would a rotation that has Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke making 40% of the starts really be the cure for the Pirates’ rotation? Because honestly, it’s hard to see how it would be.

Of course, this problem shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s been looming larger and larger since the start of the off-season. When the Pirates essentially chose to swap AJ Burnett out for Edinson Volquez (rather than revisiting the Burnett Debates of 2014, let’s leave it here: the Pirates should have gotten more pitching than Volquez this winter, whether it was Burnett or otherwise), then lost Jameson Taillon for the year to Tommy John surgery, problems with the rotation depth became imminent. It’s not good that it’s here now, though, because I honestly can’t think of a fix beyond “Hope that Liriano and Morton start pitching better, even though their velocity is down and they both look out of whack in a way that may not be amenable to a quick fix.”

Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is here. I only know that the rotation was what I was most concerned about with the Pirates coming into the season, it’s what I was most concerned about through their ugly 4-15 stretch, and nothing that happened against the Blue Jays this weekend made me feel any better about it.

Image: Hitchster, Flickr

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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