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Biertempfel: Pirates in need of relief with rotation in tatters

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 8:09 p.m.
Pirates starter Jeff Locke pitches to the Marlins during the first inning Friday, June 13, 2014, in Miami.

Last season, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton rode in like the cavalry to save the Pirates' starting rotation. A year later, they're the ones in need of some help.

Liriano and Morton were on the disabled list and Cole was in the minors at the start of the 2013 season. Liriano was activated May 11, Cole made his big league debut June 11, and Morton came off the disabled list June 13.

Their arrivals stabilized the rotation. They enabled the Pirates to dump misfits Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald. They covered for Jeff Karstens' lengthy, inevitable DL stint. They provided cushion when Wandy Rodriguez (injury) and Jeff Locke (ineffectiveness) were beset by second-half setbacks.

This season, the rotation has been the Pirates' weakest link. At midweek, the starters ranked 13th in the National League with a 4.35 ERA, 13th in innings pitched and last in quality starts.

“Our starting pitching is not getting us as deep into games as it did in June, July, August and September of last year,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We haven't had the consistent starting pitching, one through five, to allow us to get on an extended winning streak.”

This time, however, the Pirates don't have three ready-made solutions ready to roll in.

Cole is on the DL with shoulder fatigue. His return is not expected to be far off, which is good news because there is no one of his caliber at Triple-A Indianapolis. That possibility expired in early April when Jameson Taillon had Tommy John surgery.

Liriano went on the DL on Wednesday with a strained left oblique, which can be a tricky injury. Sometimes a player will miss two weeks. Sometimes he'll sit out two months.

Vance Worley, a reclamation project whom the Pirates acquired for cash at the end of spring training, was recalled to take Liriano's spot Sunday.

The only pitchers from the original rotation still standing are Morton (3-7, 3.14 ERA) and Edinson Volquez (4-5, 3.89). Brandon Cumpton (2-2, 6.06) and Jeff Locke (0-1, 3.98) already have been brought up from the minors.

“It's a bad feeling to know your teammates aren't feeling well,” Morton said. “I've been the guy who's gone down before. And who knows? We've still got a long way to go this year. You do everything you can to stay on the field and be effective, and go from there.”

Besides Worley, Indianapolis has Nick Kingham, Jay Jackson, Adam Wilk, Tyler Waldron and A.J. Morris to offer as starters. Kingham and Morris began this season at Double-A. Wilk pitched in Korea last year. Jackson and Waldron have made most of their appearances out of the bullpen.

It's been suggested the Pirates trade for Jeff Samardzija or David Price. The price tag for a pitcher like that would be two or three top-notch prospects and several million dollars in contract commitments.

That's a lot to ask from a club that wouldn't make a $14 million qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett.

For the Pirates, the next man up is probably the guy who's already down. So keep those “get well soon” notes coming to Cole and Liriano.

“It's part of our DNA,” Hurdle said. “We've really grown to embrace it. You don't raise your hand to get maligned. When it happens, I don't think an eyebrow is raised. Nobody's gonna panic.

“For the past three seasons, we've had periods of time when we've had to play ‘next man up.' Last year, we had nine pitchers make five starts. At least I've got two-fifths of a rotation in play. Last year, there were times I had none. The adversity really gives you a chance to take a good look at yourself, the way your team is built and the depth you have.”

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

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