Bob Smizik: For starters, Pirates trail Cards, Reds

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Pirates pitchers and catchers report today in Bradenton and take the field tomorrow, which makes it a right and proper time to discuss the most important element of a baseball team -- starting pitching.

It’s no secret the Pirates won primarily with pitching and defense last year and, as near as can be determined, if they are to be successful again this season it will be via the same formula. However, compared to the starting rotations of St. Louis and Cincinnati, their prime competition in the National League Central Division, the Pirates appear to be at a disadvantage.

That doesn’t mean they can’t overcome that deficit with their strong bullpen or improved hitting, but there’s no disputing the Pirates' rotation -- based on the history of the groups -- looks to be No. 3.

St. Louis has better established pitchers than do the Pirates and even a better stable of young starters. The Reds veteran starters are better and historically more dependable than the Pirates and they have a young pitcher who, based on performance thus far, is the match for Gerrit Cole.

The Pirates rotation as of today is: Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez.

The only pitcher in that group who has maintained a steady level of success at any time in his MLB career is Rodriguez, and he not only missed the final 19 weeks of last season, there’s nothing approaching a guarantee he’ll be ready to start this season. None of the other pitchers has ever put together consecutive successful and full seasons.

That is not a good way to start a season. Sure, things could break right for the Pirates. No one expected Liriano’s exceptional performance last year and that success could continue for him. Others might also step forward. But, historically, this is not a good rotation.

Pirates fans are expecting Cole to have an outstanding season and there’s certainly a good chance of that. But there’s just as good a chance that young pitchers from St. Louis and Cincinnati will do the same.

Compare the records of these 2013 rookies:

Cole was 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a 7.7 K/9.

Cincinnati’s Tony Cingrani, as a starter, was 7-4 with a 2.77 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and a 10.1 K/9.

For St. Louis, Shelby Miller was 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA a 1.21 WHIP and a 8.8 K/9 and Michael Wacha was 3-1 with a 2.83 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP and a 7.7 K/9.

As for the veterans, it’s no contest.

St. Louis has Adam Wainwright, who has two seconds and a third in Cy Young voting and six consecutive seasons of double-digit wins. It also has Lance Lynn, who is coming off 18-7 and 15-10 seasons. Combined, Wainwright and Lynn has won 66 games the past two seasons. The Pirates do not have two pitchers who can approach that.

Behind Wainwright, Lynn, Miller and Wacha, the Cardinals have Joe Kelly, who was 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA as a starter last season, and Jaime Garcia, coming off surgery, who is 38-24 as a starter in his career with a 3.40 ERA.

The St. Louis staff is significantly better and deeper than the Pirates.

In addition to Cingrani, Cincinnati has four established starters: Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos and Mike Leake.

In an injury-shortened season, Cueto was 5-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 2013. The year before he was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA. Latos has averaged 32 starts and 13 wins the past four seasons. Bailey has 24 wins and an ERA of 3.58 over the past two season. Leake, who has never pitched in the minors, is 42-29 with a 3.99 ERA in his four-year MLB career.

Those statistics might not dazzle, but they are solid to good and clearly eclipse what the Pirates starters have done.

It’s not all about starters and it’s not all about how those pitchers have performed in the past. But as constituted, the Pirates are a distinct third to their main competition in the critical area of starting pitching.

These are the rotations:

Pirates: Cole, Liriano, Morton, Rodriguez, Volquez.

Cardinals: Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha, Miller, Kelly.

Reds: Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Leake, Cingrani.

Which would you prefer?

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