You can draw a handful of different parallels to the Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitching staff early in the 2013 season and their current pitching staff
There’s been a lot of panic among fans, at least on social media, about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting pitching staff. Fans are understandably worried. Losing Johan Oviedo to Tommy John surgery leaves a lot of uncertainty about the starting rotation. Mitch Keller is about the only ‘sure bet’ to be in the rotation, with multiple young pitchers who have talent but have had trouble putting it all together, or making the next step. Now, with the division rival St. Louis Cardinals signing some pitchers, it’s thrown gasoline on the fire that is Pirates fans panicking.
But you can draw a handful of parallels to the Pirates’ starting rotation now and from their 2013 season, one of the most memorable Pirates teams in the franchise’s history and one that boasted a solid starting pitching staff by the end of the year. But at the start of the 2013 season, that’s not exactly how it looked.
At the time, A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez were the Pirates’ only ‘sure bets.’ James McDonald struggled so badly in the second half of the 2012 season that he was a major question mark going into the year. His ERA after the All-Star break was over 7.50. One of the pitchers the Pirates’ had relied on for the last few years, Charlie Morton, had undergone Tommy John surgery in early April of 2012 and wasn’t projected to return until sometime in June of 2013. Not to mention, Jeff Karstens was not guaranteed to even throw a ball in 2013, and they had lost Kevin Correia to the Minnesota Twins in free agency.
The additions the Pirates made that off-season also didn’t inspire too much confidence. The Pirates signed one starting pitcher to a Major League deal, Francisco Liriano. Liriano had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the last four seasons. In 2012, he had just a 5.34 ERA, 4.34 FIP, and 1.47 WHIP. His ERA+ of 78 indicated he was 23% worse than the league-average pitcher at limiting earned runs. On top of that, Liriano wouldn’t even pitch until May. He hurt himself in a way only a Pirates player could injury themselves: breaking his non-throwing hand on Christmas trying to make his kids think Santa was coming down the chimney.
The Pirates, still in need of starting pitching depth, then signed Jonathan Sanchez in February. While he had some solid seasons with the SF Giants, he had an ERA over 8.00 and a FIP over 6.50 in 2012 with the Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies. The other addition, Jeanmar Gomez, had pitched the last three years as an up-and-down starter/reliever for Cleveland. He had a 5.18 ERA, 4.88 FIP, and 1.51 WHIP through his first 206.2 MLB innings. His ERA in 2012 was 5.96.
So to open the year, the Pirates had Burnett and Rodriguez, with the hopes McDonald could rebound, the hope that left-hander Jeff Locke could breakout after struggling heavily in his first 51.2 MLB innings (5.82 ERA/5.19 FIP), and both Jeanmar Gomez and Jonathan Sanchez could hold the fort down until Liriano could return, who himself was a question mark.
By the end of April, the Pirates’ starting rotation was looking pretty bleak. Burnett had pitched as expected, and Locke had started to break out. But Rodriguez was up-and-down, McDonald would only make six starts, pitching to a 5.76 ERA, before landing on the IL with shoulder issues, and wouldn’t make another start for the rest of the year. Sanchez had an ERA of nearly 12.00, and Gomez had only made one start, mostly pitching out of the bullpen. Top prospect Kyle McPherson, who had looked decent in a September call-up the previous year had only started two games in 2013 before landing on the IL, and eventually needing Tommy John surgery in July.
At this point, the Pirates were counting on Liriano, who was an uncertainty himself, Morton to come back to full strength after Tommy John surgery, and top prospect Gerrit Cole to fill in one of the spots eventually. That's a lot of if's, and for a team looking to try and sustain some early season success, it would be critical to the rest of their season.
But, Liriano would take hold of a starting rotation spot with authority, and in June, Morton would return strong, and Cole would live up to the hype. By the end of June, the Pirate starting rotation had taken a complete 180. Along with Burnett and Locke, Liriano, Morton, and Cole were firing on all cylinders. Not to mention, Gomez had a few solid outings as a swing-man reliever, and Brandon Cumpton had also had a few decent starts.
And here we are nearly a decade later, worrying how the Pirates will manage with only one starting pitcher, just like how the 2013 Bucs entered the year with Burnett and McDonald as their only good options, Mike Burrows, and JT Brubaker out with Tommy John surgery who won’t return until May or June, like Morton, and hoping that Paul Skenes, their recent number one overall draft pick who broke the all-time signing bonus record will help secure the rotation this year, just like Cole.
Of course, it’s not a one-for-one mirror image. I’m also not saying that having that much uncertainty in the rotation was a good strategy then, nor is it a good strategy now. The 2013 Pirates kind of got lucky that everything clicked with their rotation. It's also totally understandable to be worried right now.
But the point of the matter is that just because there’s uncertainty now doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel before January; it’s not even December yet. Let’s give it a little time because it took the 2013 Pirates until mid-June to solidify their starting rotation, and they ended up winning 94 games, with five starters making 18+ starts with an ERA+ of 100 or greater.