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Kovacevic: Pirates should pay price for starter

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 10:31 p.m.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher David Price delivers to the Miami Marlins during the first inning of an interleague baseball game Wednesday, June 4, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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The Cubs' Jeff Samardzija pitches against the Pirates during Opening Day on March 31, 2014, at PNC Park.
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The Phillies' Cliff Lee stands on the mound early in a game against the Mets on July 21, 2013, at Citi Field in New York.

The red-eye charter flying the Pirates home from San Diego was due to land by sunrise Thursday and, barring some surprise announcement about a detour to shoot clays at Seven Springs, it had to be a mostly satisfied bunch on board.

Really, what more could anyone have asked from the 10-game, coast-to-coast trip, even with that blah 3-2 loss Wednesday at Petco Park, given how miserably it began in New York?

The club wound up 6-4, took the final two series, kept up a stretch of 10 wins in the past 15 games, 18 in the past 29, and closed a not-long-ago glaring gap in the National League wild-card standings. Just like that, this weekend's series with the visiting first-place Brewers shapes up as a very 2013-like blast.

All just swell, right?

So what next?

All the fuss soon, most likely next week, will be over Gregory Polanco. That's as it should be. The kid's earned every bit of his hype. For fans young and old, it'll be a joy watching him take right field at PNC Park. Shouldn't be an empty seat in the house.

At the same time, let's not fool anyone about what really has to happen next for the Pirates' 2014 to remain meaningful: A starting pitcher must be acquired.

As in soon. Or now.

I've been writing all along that the rotation has been the No. 1 concern, before Jameson Taillon's elbow surgery, before Wandy Rodriguez's implosion, and that's only heightened: The starters' 4.51 ERA ranks 26th among Major League Baseball's 30 teams, their 12 wins rank 30th, and they've logged as many as six innings in only 30 of their 59 games. Even on this recent good run, it's been a whole lot of what Francisco Liriano showed again Wednesday. It's been four, five innings and the occasional fraction. It's been Gerrit Cole and long relief.

The relievers, especially Tony Watson with his 18th consecutive scoreless outing Wednesday, have built a bridge to the back-end guys, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, both back in 2013 form. The offense, for all the gloom of April, has been No. 6 in the majors with a .751 OPS over the past month. But neither the bullpen nor the bats will make up for the rotation forever.

So fine. Go get a starter.

And no, for crying out loud, it doesn't have to be A.J. Burnett. Tune in to social media or talk shows, and it's easy to get the impression that Burnett was the only pitcher in this sector of the Milky Way who could address this need. Sure, the Pirates front office blew it by not offering Burnett enough for the compensatory draft pick, their $12 million to the needed $14 million. But Burnett held out for more, made his choice and moved on to Philly. Either way, get over it already.

I say shoot even higher.

Teams are falling out of contention, and some will eye rebuilding. The last-place Rays have the great David Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner, and he has only this year and next before being eligible for free agency. The last-place Cubs have Jeff Samardzija, a terrific talent who's 1-5 despite a 2.54 ERA. He can become a free agent at the same time as Price. The last-place Phillies, set for a long-overdue fire sale, told teams over the winter they'd give up Cliff Lee.

I could go on, but the pattern is clear: Some of the world's best arms will be available via trade this summer.

What's more, the Pirates are in the incredibly unusual position of having the upper hand on almost every suitor out there. That's because their minor league system, ranked No. 1 by Baseball America this past offseason, boasts seven prospects among the sport's top 100. And my own count puts two, possibly three others close to that threshold.

Make no mistake: This is what GMs want. As Neal Huntington has told me many times over the years, prospects are the single most difficult commodity to acquire. Well, the Pirates have that commodity, and they might well have more of it than anyone.

They also have the money to pay someone like Price, who would cost the prorated portion of his $14 million salary this year and have his 2015 salary set by an arbitrator. I'll remind here that Burnett left $12 million on the table. The only major expenditure since then was adding Ike Davis' $3.5 million salary. There's still plenty left. And if any potential cost is deemed too much, there's always the option to seek cash back for a greater prospect return.

This can get done, provided the prospect heading out is anyone but Polanco.

That's too steep a price even for Price.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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