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Pirates' rotation is a value menu

| Sunday, June 2, 2013, 11:31 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke delivers to the plate against the Tigers during the fourth inning Thursday, May 30, 2013, at PNC Park.

Not only has the Pirates' rotation been one of the best in baseball — it has produced the fourth-best ERA among starters (3.45), entering Saturday — but the staff also has been among the best values.

The Pirates are paying their five pitchers with the most games started this season — A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez — $20.5 million, fewer dollars than any of the three starting staffs in baseball with lower ERAs. Among the staffs with the top-10 ERAs in baseball, the Pirates trail only the Rangers ($14.4 million) and Braves ($19.1 million) in fewest dollars spent on their five most commonly used starters.

The Yankees and Astros are paying $13.5 of the $30 million owed to Burnett and Rodriguez. Locke and Gomez are making near the league minimum.

Francisco Liriano, who has replaced the injured McDonald in the rotation, has looked like a free-agent bargain, posting a career-best strikeout rate and a lowered walk rate, all while pitching on a incentive-laden deal that guaranteed him $1 million in 2013. Liriano can make up to $11.75 million during the deal with his option and incentives.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington is pleased with the production and value.

“It's been very good to date. We still have long ways to go,” Huntington said. “We've done some good things to get where we are. A.J. has pitched so well. Wandy has been solid and steady. Jeff Locke and Gomez have been very good, and Liriano has stepped in and given us quality starts.”

And there's reason to believe the Pirates' starting staff should continue to be productive. It ranks sixth in the NL in strikeouts (272) and sixth in WHIP (1.23).

The Pirates are paying their staff less than or roughly equal to what the Phillies are paying individual starters Cliff Lee ($25 million), Cole Hamels ($20.5 million) and Roy Halladay ($20 million) this season.

The Pirates are paying their starters less than what the Cardinals are paying injured pitchers Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook ($21.5 million combined).

The small-market Pirates must develop their own pitching or find bargains via trade and free agency, as the cost for above-average pitching has skyrocketed.

“(An average) major league producer costs you between $7 million to $11 million,” Huntington said. “Elite production costs you $20-25 (million). ... We have to be fairly efficient with our dollars.”

Huntington said improving depth in the system has allowed the club to be more selective when signing free agents.

“When we have the opportunity to pick and choose, we become a lot more efficient,” Huntington said.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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