Here are the pitchers that I'm comfortable with in the Pirates' pitching staff (in order of confidence), one week before the 2013 season begins:
1. AJ Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
That's not a great trio, but it's a pretty good one. Burnett had a strong year last year in the National League and in a friendly ballpark, with the Pirates' coaching staff helping him induce as many ground balls as he ever has in his career. He's getting older and he clearly ran out of gas late in 2012, but I don't really think there's any reason that he shouldn't be able to just about replicate his 2012 season for the Pirates in 2013.
Wandy Rodriguez was the Pirates' best starter after the trade deadline last year. He's 34 now and his strikeouts keep dropping, but he gets more groundballs now than he ever has and this is the sort of thing (quite possibly the only thing) the Pirates' coaching staff seems to be able to work with. Like Burnett, I'd expect his 2013 to look at lot like his 2012, which means 200-odd innings, a nice K/BB ratio, some groundballs, and mostly good starts with some bad ones peppered in the middle.
There is a caveat to both Burnett and Rodriguez. It's easy to look at how a pitcher has pitched and see no huge health issues and say that they'll be about the same in the coming season. The problem here is that Burnett is 36 and Rodriguez is 34 (they both have January birthdays). Eventually these two are going to wake up and be not quite the pitcher that they were the year before, for no reason other than that they're on the downside of their careers. I feel OK about Burnett even though he's older, because his rate numbers last year looked just about like they did during his last few years in Florida and his first year in Toronto. They weren't quite as good as his best years, but I don't think it's a precipitous drop. I'm concerned about Rodriguez a bit, though, because his velocity and strikeouts have been falling for a couple of years already. He's adjusted by getting more groundballs, but it's going to bite him eventually. I don't think that this year will be the year that either guy starts to really decline, but it's not fair to talk about how they're going to pitch in 2013 without mentioning their age and what that might mean for them.
James McDonald is a talented but wildly inconsistent pitcher, which means that he's going to have brilliant stretches and awful ones. Hopefully with age will come a stabilization of his mechanics and an adaption to the long big league season, which would probably tip the scales in favor of the brilliant stretches and make him an AJ Burnett-like pitcher. This is not a sure thing.
These are the pitchers that will help the Pirates at some point in 2013 that are not available to them right now, in order of potential impact:
1. Gerrit Cole
2. Francisco Liriano
3. Jeff Karstens
4. Charlie Morton
Gerrit Cole is starting 2013 in Triple-A because he is not ready for the Major Leagues quite yet. Frankly, I'd say that anyone that tells you otherwise is either uniformed or has a blatant agenda. That being said, the second that Cole steps foot on the mound in black and gold, he will become one of the most talented pitchers in Pirate history. This is not hyperbole — the Pirates just haven't had nearly as many super-talented pitchers as you might expect a franchise founded in 1887 to have had by now. Talent is a guarantee of nothing, though. You surely remember Kris Benson. That's particularly true of someone as young as Cole is right now. Even if he blows the doors off of Triple-A and joins the Pirates in June, he's likely to get beaten up a little bit in the early part of his career.
Returns diminish quickly afer Cole. We've been over Liriano ad nauseum this winter. He's talented, but even if he were 100% healthy he'd be a gamble to perform. He's not healthy and frankly, I don't think anyone outside of the team has any idea how his broken non-pitching humerus will really affect his pitching this year. Karstens is a decent pitcher, but his shoulder injuries scare the crap out of me and I don't think he should be counted on for anything substantial this year. Morton is more intriguing from an intellectual standpoint, because of the way he completely altered his approach to succeed in a non-traditional way for a starter. I do think that he's talented enough to come back from his Tommy John surgery to be a decent back-of-the-rotation guy, but I also realize that that's far from a slam dunk and that he wasn't really all that great of a pitcher before he got hurt, so relying too heavily on him is pretty stupid.
It's probably accurate to say that what the Pirates have right now is a decent middle of a rotation with Burnett and Rodriguez and McDonald. There aren't any aces among that trio, but you can get away without having a true top of the rotation if you also avoid having a true bottom of the rotation. That is, you'd have a pretty decent rotation if you had five #3 starters. You can even argue that if Cole comes up and sets the National League on fire and the coaching staff helps Liriano find his old form during his rehab that by 1 July, we're going to look really dumb for worrying about the rotation in April.
There are two problems with that scenario. The first is that it's hugely optimistic. The second is that roughly one half of the season will be played between 1 April and 1 July. How, exactly, will the Pirates bridge that gap? This is where things get really dicey. Really dicey. Here are five more pitchers likely to log innings for the Pirates in the season's first half, based on how many innings they will probably throw in black and gold:
1. Jeff Locke
2. Jonathan Sanchez
3. Kyle McPherson
4. Jeanmar Gomez
Jonathan Sanchez is number two! And not in a scatological humor kind of way, in an actual "This guy is going to make the rotation and if he doesn't the options aren't really a whole lot better" kind of way. I wrote about Locke and McPherson a couple of weeks ago; I'm not really impressed or hugely encouraged by either guy, though I will admit that there is some upside to them. Logically (that is, based on minor league stats, overall level of experience, and not being a shambling disaster this spring) Locke is the one that deserves the first shot and he'll get it.
I feel like I covered Sanchez pretty well in my post on him from Bradenton. Sanchez is 1.) coming off of a disastrous year, 2.) left-handed, and 3.) capable of striking out a ton of hitters. Numbers two and three mitigate number one to the point that he's the sort of pitcher that will always get another shot (see: Perez, Oliver — LOOGY extraordinaire, Seattle Mariners), but I'd much rather that that shot start in Indianapolis and not Pittsburgh. It's one thing to think that you can fix Jonathan Sanchez; any pitching coach worth his salt must think he can fix Jonathan Sanchez. It's another thing to actually rely on fixing Jonathan Sanchez as part of your strategy for a season. Given the existent questions about McDonald, Locke, McPherson Liriano, and Karstens, the Pirates are now perilously close to relying on Sanchez before moving on down to Jeanmar Gomez.
Jeanmar Gomez is kind of like Charlie Morton; he works in theory, but not so much in practice. He's a decent-sized guy (he's listed at 6'3"), he's capable of throwing fairly hard (his fastball/sinker can sometimes get into the lower-mid 90s), and he can induce groundballs. It's just not all there, though, and he gets hit hard a lot and he's not very good. He could maybe, possibly, make some decent spot-starts against right-heavy lineups in a park like PNC, but needing him to do more requires him to be a better pitcher than he's been in the past. He's only 26 and he has some tools, of course, so it's not completely impossible, but counting on this to happen is pretty foolish.
That means that what the Pirates have on Opening Day is the aforementioned solid middle of the rotation (Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald), but no top of the rotation and a potentially disastrous back-end of the rotation. This is really bad news for as long as this situation persists. Locke and Sanchez/McPherson could absolutely combine to give the Pirates a decent back end of their rotation that's much better than it seems like they will be right now, but I can tell you that putting your eggs in this basket seems like a good way to end up with a basket full of rotten eggs.
The problem is that what the Pirates need for the rotation to be any sort of good (Cole coming straight out of Triple-A as an ace, Liriano being relatively healthy and relative good, McDonald putting everything together) seems less likely to me to happen than the scenarios that make the Pirates' rotation a disaster (Liriano not really pitching much all year, Karstens not pitching much, Cole not rushing to the big leagues and having some growing pains at least at first, Sanchez, Locke, McPherson, etc. being really, really bad). Burnett and Rodriguez and McDonald are nice enough pitchers, but they're just not good enough to prop up a rotation that could be 40% lead anchor.
There's plenty of potential here. Burnett and Rodriguez and McDonald all have enough raw ability that they could actually be better than they were last year (not that it's likely, just possible) or that they could go through a blazing stretch of out-pitching peripherals to open the season and keep things afloat while Locke and Sanchez or whoever are still making regular starts. And with Cole coming and McPherson and maybe Irwin in Triple-A and Liriano, Morton, and Karstens all expected to make varying sorts of returns, the rotation shouldn't ever get stuck in a static state of terribleness. There should always be someone else that has a non-zero chance of being a useful pitcher (that is, no Dana Evelands or Hayden Penns, though Jeanmar Gomez and Jonathan Sanchez are awfully close to that level) that the team can give starts to if someone is struggling. That being said, a plan of "toss a bunch of crap at the wall and hope that something sticks" isn't really all that good of a plan when your top three starters don't include any elite pitchers.
There are a few places where this could go right and a lot of places where it could go wrong.