On the Pirates: There can never be enough pitching
June 14, 2014 11:33 PM
Pirates' Jeff Locke pitches against the Brewers June 8 at PNC Park.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Almost every time the Pirates acquire a pitcher, whether in a trade, free agency or waiver claim, general manager Neal Huntington includes the phrase "You can never have enough pitching" in his explanation of the move. The issues that befell the Pirates' rotation in the first few months of the season illustrate the reasoning behind that mantra.
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Wandy Rodriguez was the first to fall, first to the disabled list for a month because of a knee problem and later into oblivion after poor performance led the Pirates to release him. Gerrit Cole came next, going to the DL last week because of what the team called shoulder fatigue.
Before landing on the DL because of a strained left oblique, Francisco Liriano had a 4.60 ERA. He is walking one more batter per nine innings this year than he did in 2013, when he had a 3.02 ERA. His home run to fly ball ratio has doubled from last season to this year.
A 2012 article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that the average DL stint for pitchers with an abdominal strain was roughly 35 days. Liriano, who has also dealt with tightness in his groin and dizziness resulting from a nosebleed this season, might not return until after the All-Star break.
That leaves Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez from the opening-day rotation, which has not produced the way it did last season even with everyone healthy. Pirates starters ranked 24th in the majors in innings pitched entering the weekend and their 4.27 ERA ranked 13th in the National League.
The Pirates added Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke from Class AAA Indianapolis, who for the moment are the next men up to try to stabilize the rotation.
Right-hander Vance Worley will make his Pirates debut with a start today against the Miami Marlins -- filling Liriano's spot in the rotation. Worley, who was recalled Saturday from Class AAA, was acquired for cash from the Minnesota Twins near the end of spring training.
"I think we both look at it as an opportunity to help this club out," Locke said of he and Cumpton. "This is where I want to be."
Volquez pitched seven scoreless innings Thursday and Morton allowed one run in seven innings Monday. Morton's outing mirrored Locke's start Sunday, when Locke needed only 75 pitches to complete seven innings in which he gave up just one run. Locke said he didn't know his pitch count was that low until he looked to the scoreboard.
He has done it before. An All-Star in 2013, the left-handed Locke tailed off in the second half in part because a back injury prevented him from completing his workouts between starts.
"He tried to pitch for almost six weeks with doing nothing but throw maybe a side, and go pitch," manager Clint Hurdle said. "No strength and conditioning, none of that work that he was doing all first half. So he was in uncharted territory, and then it just got to the point, I think, where he ran out of gas."
After making a spot start for the Pirates May 5, Locke posted a 3.19 ERA in his next five starts for Indianapolis, striking out 20 but walking 17 in 31 innings.
"This is where I think you're going to get the best Jeff Locke out of me," he said. "[Indianapolis manager] Dean Treanor does a good job in Triple-A of trying to keep me focused on the task at hand, but you just can't simulate the big leagues."
Before the right-handed Cumpton's permanent insertion into the rotation, he posted a 1.35 ERA in 40 innings across six Class AAA starts. He only allowed 10 walks in that time. After allowing 11 runs in 32/3 innings in a start in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, Cumpton put forth two solid outings.
"Each guy [in the rotation] puts up a good start," Cumpton said. "You always want to try to go out there and do better than him. I think we're helping each other get better out here."
Cole is due back soon, but the uncertainty surrounding the rotation's performance and health means the Pirates could look for help on the trade market. Chicago Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija and Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price represent the two best pitchers who could be traded this summer. Any team that acquires either one will pay a steep price in terms of prospects.
Some lower-profile pitchers likely will switch teams, too. The Pirates likely will look there for help, the way they did with Rodriguez near the 2012 trade deadline.
The Pirates are moving in the right direction. After their rotation posted the worst ERA in the NL in May, the unit's 2.80 ERA in June entering the weekend ranked second in the league.
The long outings from Locke, Morton and Volquez eased the strain on the bullpen, which had pitched the third-most innings in the majors.
When Locke began preparing for his start Sunday, he said, catcher Russell Martin told him not to focus on tendencies and "attack them."
"It wasn't going to be about, this guy's not seeing it well, this guy doesn't hit the changeup," Locke said. "It was let's go out there and have fun."
It worked, for one start, at least. As the regular starters convalesce, the Pirates are going to have to hope Locke and Cumpton get the job done.
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