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Deep starting staff gives Pirates lofty expectations

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett throws against the Twins on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — By the end of the first week of spring training, new Pirates catcher Russell Martin had worked with practically every pitcher in camp. He caught their bullpens, learned their good and bad habits, gauged their stuff and discussed their strategies.

One afternoon, after squatting for side sessions with staff ace A.J. Burnett and heralded prospect Gerrit Cole, Martin smiled as he took off his gear.

“Every team has got some live arms,” said Martin, who previously played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. “But this is the first time I've seen so many live arms in a camp. I'm impressed.”

The rest of the National League had better be impressed, too. Otherwise, the Pirates' season could be over in a hurry.

Andrew McCutchen gives the team its sizzle, Neil Walker is its soul, Pedro Alvarez is the thumper, and Jason Grilli offers the joie de vivre. But the starting rotation is what will make or break the Pirates in 2013.

“When we've been good in the past, it's been primarily because of our starting pitching,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We feel good about this rotation.”

Burnett will be on the mound Monday for the season-opener against the Chicago Cubs. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez will start Wednesday followed by righty James McDonald on Thursday.

A shoulder injury put Jeff Karstens on the disabled list near the end of spring training, so left-hander Jonathan Sanchez moved into the No. 4 spot. Lefty Jeff Locke, who has 12 big-league games under his belt, rounds out the rotation.

“We think it's deep and versatile,” Huntington said. “It's different looks. Different guys doing different things. The veteran presence, the ability to take down innings, the ability to give us a legitimate shot to win every fifth day.”

It's arguably the team's best collection of arms in at least a decade. It is a more experienced group than any in recent years — Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald and Sanchez have a combined 34 years' service time.

Certainly, it's the most expensive rotation in franchise history. The top four starters will make a combined $33.9 million.

“If everybody's clicking and everybody pitches to their potential, the sky is the limit,” McDonald said. “I'd say health is the biggest key for us. If we stay healthy, we're going to be pretty good.”

It's a valid concern.

Burnett turned 36 in January. Early in his career, elbow problems — which culminated in Tommy John surgery — put him out of action more than a half-dozen times. Yet, he hasn't been on the DL because of a pitching-related injury since 2007.

Rodriguez (two DL stints in his career) and McDonald (none) are low injury risks. Two established veterans — Francisco Liriano (broken arm) and Charlie Morton (elbow surgery) — are still in Florida rehabbing from injuries. Liriano should be ready to return in early May. Morton could be back by mid-June.

“The scary part is, I don't see another team in baseball that has two guys like Liriano or Morton waiting to come back,” Karstens said.

Even if nobody else in the rotation gets hurt, someone might have to step aside when Liriano and Morton are ready.

“Teams that win the World Series have that pitching depth, guys who can step in and make starts here and there,” Karstens said. “If we win the World Series, nobody is going to bicker about it. Everybody is going to contribute. It will all work out.”

The wild card in this equation could be Cole, the top overall pick in 2011, who'll open the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

The right-hander looked so sharp in spring training, many scouts said he was good enough to crack the rotation.

If Cole gets off to a strong start at Indy, management might be tempted to call him up — but not until at least mid-June so Cole won't be eligible for Super 2 status (arbitration after his second season).

“We've got a lot of options, a lot of weapons,” Burnett said. “We've got a lot of guys capable of filling in and not leaving a gap.”

A lot of weapons? Yes, but how well will they fire? Last year, Pirates starters ranked 21st out of 30 major league teams in innings pitched. They were 11th among National League staffs in ERA and quality starts.

“To me, the biggest factor is innings,” special assistant Jim Benedict said. “How many innings are they going to give you, from top to bottom? Effectiveness. It's about going every fifth day, about going deep into the game, about saving your bullpen and giving you a chance to win.”

Burnett has pitched 190-plus innings six times. Rodriguez has done it in each of the past four seasons.

“You want to put your horses together, guys who can give you 200 innings,” Burnett said. “You don't want to build into a two-, three- or four-day losing streak. We've got a rotation now where it's very easy to stop the bleeding. That's the key to a good rotation — to be able to stop those losing streaks.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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