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Kovacevic: Pirates' rotation built on Band-Aids

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 12:07 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez throws in the bullpen at Pirate City during spring training in Bradenton, Fla.

Before leaving the Pirates' spring training complex in Florida a couple of weeks ago, I asked the same question of several of the athletes: What will it take for this team to contend in 2013?

The answers were exactly what you'd expect.

A.J. Burnett: “Starting pitching. It's on us.”

Neil Walker: “Starting pitching, no question.”

Garrett Jones: “Always comes back to starting pitching, doesn't it?”

Sure does.

So, how to feel now that, with only a handful of days before Monday's opener against the Cubs, the home team is scrambling to assemble a handful of starters?

No, really ...

• Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez should be reliable. At the same time, caution should be advised for Burnett. He's 36, and his fine 2012 — 3.51 ERA in 31 starts — marked his best season since 2005. The Bill James Handbook's projections for the coming season, based on an array of historical data, has Burnett regressing to a 4.05 ERA with less command.

• James McDonald, the No. 3 starter, is coming off a 2012 collapse no less ugly than that of the team. First half, he looked like an All-Star. Second half, he had a 7.52 ERA and looked like he'd rather have been any place on the planet but a pitcher's mound. He's been similarly erratic this spring.

• Jonathan Sanchez, named No. 4 starter Tuesday just before pitching in Dunedin, Fla. — 4 23 innings, four runs, seven hits — is fresh off a terrible 2012 in which his ERA in 15 starts for the Royals and Rockies was 8.07. This spring, he was a complete wreck in the early going.

• Either Jeff Locke or Kyle McPherson will be named the No. 5 starter, though neither will win it on merit. Both are inexperienced, and both have been whacked of late in Grapefruit ball: Locke's past two starts have seen 15 hits and four earned runs over 7 13 innings. McPherson has fared far worse in his past two starts with 17 hits and 13 earned runs ­— five home runs! ­— in 9 23 innings.

Imagine the ticker tape when that winner's announced.

Now, I could go on a rant about how this is another example of management's failure to draft and develop pitchers. But I won't mention how none of the above is a draft pick of the current front office (McPherson came under previous GM Dave Littlefield), how the only other prospects in the Triple-A Indianapolis rotation will be Gerrit Cole and Phil Irwin, and how the better part of $52 million on recent drafts — mostly invested in pitching — has been flushed away.

No, I'll just resist that ranting urge and move on.

Ray Searage is a terrific pitching coach and unwavering optimist. No one should doubt that, between his teaching and upbeat temperament, he'll get the best out of what he has.

But what does he have?

“I feel pretty good,” Searage said by phone Tuesday after the Pirates' 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays. “I feel comfortable with A.J., Wandy, J-Mac, Sanchy and whoever's in the fifth spot. I know these guys will compete for me, and I feel like we've got good options.”


With McDonald needing 98 pitches to last 4 13 innings Monday against Toronto's Triple-A team?

“J-Mac's in a good place right now,” Searage came back. “We've got him doing something different in his delivery after watching tape, and he's got to keep repeating it.”

It's a simple tuck of the ball inside the waist before his windup, nothing major.

And Sanchez?

“The wind was blowing the ball over the place here. I went out to the mound at one point, and Jonathan said, ‘I know, it's all good.' And I said back, ‘Damn right it's all good. Just keep pitching like you are.' We're getting over some hurdles with him.”

People will complain more than ever about Cole being in Indy under these circumstances. I'll reiterate that Cole is worth more to the Pirates for an extra year in his prime down the road — which happens if he stays in the minors until June — because of the colossal cost of elite pitching.

Fact is, this team should have been better prepared. Francisco Liriano was inexplicably handed a two-year contract that could pay $12 million after his non-pitching arm was broken. He won't pitch until May. Charlie Morton was guaranteed $2 million coming off Tommy John surgery. He won't pitch until June. Jeff Karstens was wisely brought back at a lower rate, but his recent shoulder trouble should have ensured contingencies.

Where are they?

The Pirates are set to enter the season — and a challenging opening six weeks — with a rotation built on Band-Aids.

Which, from the look of things, is pretty much what they had planned.

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