Kovacevic: For Pirates, it all starts with starts

Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers during the first inning against the Yankees on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers during the first inning against the Yankees on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
| Sunday, March 30, 2014, 10:14 p.m.

The 128th season of the once-proud-and-proud-once-again Pittsburgh Baseball Club will begin, under peculiarly sunny skies at almost precisely 1:05 p.m. Monday, with Francisco Liriano's first pitch. And if this summer somehow were to follow the sweetest of scripts, it'll all end with his last pitch.

He'll be the last man standing.

I can see it, too. Not just because everything about those 2013 Pirates has suddenly, magically made all things baseball seem possible again. But mostly because Liriano is made of ace-plus material. He might well be that Steve Blass bounding into Bob Robertson's arms, finishing what he starts on the grandest of stages. He's that talented. He's that tough.

What the big man isn't, however, is that horse who lugs the load for all the games in between. His next 200-inning season will be the first. His career high is 191.2 in 2011 with the Twins, but his next-best was 174 last season, including playoffs. He's otherwise never topped 156.

Small wonder, then, that the primary goal beginning Monday against the Cubs is a simple one.

“Consistency,” Liriano was telling me a couple weeks ago in Bradenton, Fla. “I just want to stay healthy, go deeper in games, maybe use my two-seamer more to get ground balls.”

That's the sinker.

“I just need to stay healthy. That's the big thing.”

Not just for him. Fact is, the rest of the rotation doesn't exactly overflow with hope in this vital category.

Wandy Rodriguez has by far the best pedigree, having put up seasons of 182.2, 205.2, 195 and 191 and another of 205.2. The latter came in 2012, the year he was a midseason acquisition from the Astros. Last season, though, he managed only 62.2 because of a wonky elbow that no one still sounds certain is all the way back.

Before we proceed, stick a bookmark there, because that's your iron man.

Charlie Morton rebounded smoothly from Tommy John surgery last season and logged 121.2 innings, including the playoffs. His career high is 171.2 in 2011, and he never has otherwise reached 100.

“I'm looking for 201,” Morton cracked with typical wryness.

Gerrit Cole has been remarkably healthy throughout his amateur and young pro career — find some wood to knock — but he'll now pitch outside his prospect-level limitations for the first time. As he assured me, “There's no ceiling number of any kind, and I'm really looking forward to that.”

That's wonderful, of course. No one on the staff is better built to be that horse, now or in the long term. But no precedent is no precedent.

Edinson Volquez has pitched seasons of 196 and 182.2 innings, but if he keeps spraying fastballs and raining runs as he did all spring, management's going to gulp down that $5 million and send him to the pen. Here's hoping that leash isn't long because what looks dumb now — investing in a project rather than a known, reliable, possibly even bland commodity — will only look dumber.

Jeff Locke was a legit All-Star last season before confirming the customary doubts that a wiry guy like him — 6-foot, 185 pounds, or so he's listed — can go the distance. He was shut down by September and will open this season on the DL.

You know, spring training tends to be a time for debates about backup first basemen, middle relief, the fringe of the roster. But once that first pitch is thrown, it's funny how the only thing that really matters immediately falls into focus.

“It's all about the starting pitching. We know that,” Cole said. “That's true all over baseball, and it's true for us. But we also feel like we've got the guys in here who can do it. We've got some big arms and some big bodies, and I think we'll be there.”

They'd better.

The 200-inning marker is the one pitching coaches push to all starters, but the numbers show that only 36 achieved it in the majors last season. Only 12 teams had two such starters, and only the Reds, Tigers and Royals had three. It isn't easy.

The Pirates, of course, had none, which would appear to lessen the urgency. But A.J. Burnett's staff-best 193 innings are gone. And although the starters as a whole ranked fifth in the majors with a collective 3.50 ERA, they also ranked 24th in innings pitched. No team had a bigger gap in those two rankings.

Let me put that another way: The bullpen, which ranked fourth in innings pitched, did a whole lot of bailing out.

A sequel of that scenario, I promise, will fizzle well before anyone has the chance to shed tears over Vin Mazzaro.

It all starts right here.

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