Bob Smizik: Opening day honor backfires for Pirates


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When Francisco Liriano was informed by manager Clint Hurdle that he would have the honor of being the Pirates opening day starter, he should have responded as sarcastically as possible with these words: ''Thanks, thanks a lot.’’

Since the opening of PNC Park in 2001, the players chosen to pitch the first game of the season almost to a man have gone on to disappointment and often to severe career declines. The following is not to suggest such a fate awaits Liriano. It is to suggest that what appear to be the brightest of futures don’t always turn out that way.

Consider these Pirates opening day starters:

2001: Todd Ritchie: After going 15-11 and 9-8 the previous two seasons, he was 11-15 in 2001. He was 6-19 the next three years and then out of MLB.

2002: Ron Villone: Went on to have a 4-6 season with a 5.81 ERA.

2003: Kris Benson: Heralded as the Pirates great hope after being the first player taken in the 1996 draft, Benson earned this start by going 9-6 in 2002. He was 5-9 in 2003 and was traded to the Mets the next season.

2004: Kip Wells: He went on to a 5-7 record that year, 8-18 the next and was 1-5 when traded to Texas, for Jesse Chavez, in 2006.

2005: Oliver Perez: He earned this honor on the basis of a 2.98 ERA and a 10.97 K/9, the 21st best in MLB history, in 2004. In 2005, his ERA soared to 5.85 and his K/9 dipped to 8.5.

2006: Oliver Perez: So highly regarded was Perez -- he had been compared to Sandy Koufax -- that not even the stench of his 2005 season could keep him from this honor again. He went on to a 2-10 record with a 6.63 ERA and was traded to the Mets in July for Xavier Nady.

2007: Zach Duke: After an utterly brilliant 2006 -- 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA -- it was understandable Duke would get the call. He was 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA.

2008: Ian Snell: He earned this honor by back-to-back seasons of 14-11, 4.74 ERA and 9-12, 3.76 ERA. He was 7-12 with a 5.42 ERA in 2008. Those seven wins would be the most he’d win the remainder of his career, which ended in 2010 at the age of 28.

2009: Paul Maholm: A 9-9 season in 2008 with a 3.71 ERA earned Maholm this opening day start. The next two season he was 17-24 with a 4.76 ERA.

2010: Zach Duke: He got his second opening day start on the basis of a 11-16, 4.06 ERA in 2009. In 2010 he was 8-15 with a 5.72 ERA. Over the past three seasons, he's won six games.

2011: Kevin Correia: Although he had not pitched for the Pirates in the nightmare that was the 2010 season, Correia got the 2011 start and acquitted himself adequately that season with 12-11 record and a 4.79 ERA.

2012: Erik Bedard: For the second straight year the honor went to a pitcher who hadn’t been with the team the year before. Bedard went on to go 7-14 with a 5.01 ERA and was released in August.

2013: A.J. Burnett: He earned the honor with a good 2012 season and responded with an even better year in 2013, although it ended in his famous tirade when not given the start in the fifth game of the NLDS against St. Louis.

So what does it all mean?

Well, what it doesn’t mean is that Pirates opening day starters are doomed to future failure. Nor does it mean that there is a curse of any kind of those starters.

What it does mean is that no matter how good a pitcher might have been or might figure to become, there are no sure things in MLB.

Those expecting Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow to take the Pirates to championships should be aware of this history. It doesn’t mean those pitchers will fail. It does mean they might.


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