Pittsburgh Pirates’ dilemma: who should start Opening Day?


Few titles in sports carry as much weight as a club’s “Opening Day starter” does.  Think about this: baseball teams embark on an epic 162-game season that comes to life in the spring, consumes virtually every day of summer and sweetly sends us off to the fall and winter.

With that in mind, one day, one game, one start out of 162 should not carry that much weight.  But somehow Opening Day does.  Why is that?

For a starting pitcher, the psychological boost of starting the first game of the season can propel them to great years.  In 2013, A.J. Burnett took the ball against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park, and even though the Pirates lost 3-1, Batman went onto post a great season, with a 3.30 ERA and 209 strikeouts, 10 of those during that game.

Last season, Francisco Liriano took the marquee billing as the de facto ace and pitched very well, striking out 10 in six innings and picking up a no decision in an eventual win against those very same Cubs.  Although he had a shaky first half, Liriano pulled it together in the second half and rounded out the 2014 season with a very respectable 3.38 ERA overall. (For more on Liriano’s 2014, please read our own Jacob Misener’s excellent piece.)

For a starting pitcher, the psychological boost of starting the first game of the season can propel them to a great year.

For the team, it means setting your rotation and assigning roles.  To me, this is where Clint Hurdle really earns most of his paycheck.   Setting a rotation can be a daunting task of ego-juggling.  Some pitchers, such as Burnett, thrive off of the spotlight of starting their team’s year, while others are more workmanlike in their approach.  In either case, the choice of an Opening Day starter weighs more heavily on a manager than they will often admit.  Getting it right could mean getting the club excited about the possibilities of their long grind and propel the team to a good start.

This is where the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in 2015.  They easily have two aces on their staff:  Gerrit Cole and Liriano.  Hurdle will have to make a hard choice as Opening Day approaches.  It seems as if Cole’s career has been building up to the day when he assumes his role and gets that honor.  It’s no secret that the young right-hander thrives off emotion.  Putting him into this role, provided he pitches well, could really set the tone for him in what many are expecting to be a huge year for Cole, the kind of year where he takes a step forward and announces himself as a legitimate major league ace.

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On the other hand, Liriano performed admirably in the role last year and is fresh off of the richest free agent contract in Pirates history.  Throwing him out there on April 6, 2015 against the Reds might just warrant nary a peep of opposition from many fans, including myself.

Lastly, for the fan, it means the one and only thing it has always meant:  winning.   Getting that all-important Opening Day win greatly energizes the fan base and truly ushers in the start of baseball season.

How great for us Pirates fans that we have two solid options to choose from to lead our team into the battle that is the long, arduous MLB season.

Let the debate begin.