Starting pitching needed badly, but from where?
Pirates pitcher Daniel McCutchen throws against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning of Thursday's game at PNC Park.
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There was no team meeting Thursday afternoon in the wake of the Pirates' historic 20-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, at least not among the players.
"Not now," one veteran said. "This isn't the time."
The explanation of several players was that the team has shown good chemistry all through spring and most of the opening month, that the team has found a way to bounce back from other lopsided losses, and that the best remedy would be to resume illustrating both those traits tonight in Houston.
But there was another sentiment expressed, too: The starting pitching needs to be upgraded.
And, on that count, players and management appear to be on the same page, as general manager Neal Huntington, manager John Russell and others on the staff began discussing a variety of options to address it.
This is what is expected in the immediate future:
• Chris Jakubauskas, a member of Class AAA Indianapolis' rotation, will be recalled today and join the team in time to be ready for long relief against the Astros. Jakubauskas, a 31-year-old right-hander with 35 starts in the majors, was 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA for Indianapolis.
His addition is aimed at helping a seriously depleted bullpen after the Pirates' starters totaled just 9 2/3 innings in the three-game sweep by the Brewers.
• Kevin Hart, also in Indianapolis' rotation, will be summoned to start Saturday. Hart had been expected to open the year in the Pirates' rotation, but massive control issues in the spring derailed that. In three appearances for Indianapolis, including two starts, he had a 4.35 ERA with 11 strikeouts and six walks, and opponents batted just .162.
Top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln is in Indianapolis, too -- 1-1 with a 4.70 ERA -- but management wants to see significant improvement in his still-sparing use of the changeup and his command of the curve.
The Pirates, their 7.23 staff ERA and the lack of attractive options in the minors would appear to make them a prime candidate for outside additions, but Huntington made clear that those are unlikely. His stated preference is to wait for Ross Ohlendorf to return from his back pain, expected near month's end, and to have highly erratic Charlie Morton get straightened out.
"Ohlendorf is around the corner, and Morton will get better," Huntington said. "And, like almost every other club in baseball, we will piece together the final rotation spot, at least until Hart or Lincoln is ready to go."
Of signing a free agent, Huntington said, "By the time we could sign and stretch out one of the free agent options, we'll have internal solutions."
Of a possible trade: "No one has excess starting pitching they are willing to give up. Additionally, it makes little sense to panic and give up a legitimate prospect to acquire a short-term-fit, fringy, bottom-of-the-rotation starter that might be an incremental performance upgrade."
It is hard to imagine at this point what would not represent an upgrade over the Pirates' current rotation, with mild exceptions for Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. As Huntington indicated, few teams go legitimately five deep, but this staff has yet to firm up more than two, if that many.
That said, there also cannot be many teams struggling this much with the No. 5 starter.
Daniel McCutchen was hit hard yet again in the epic loss Thursday, six runs on eight hits, including home runs by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, over 3 2/3 innings. His ERA through three abbreviated starts is 14.73, exactly as it was before the first pitch, and opponents are batting .360 off him with five home runs in just 11 innings.
He is a virtual lock to be optioned back to Indianapolis, and he seemed aware of that after the game as part of a visibly emotional interview session with reporters.
"Whatever happens happens," McCutchen said. "It's hard to say I'm staying positive, but I am. There were some good things today. I felt like I commanded my fastball well, but ... lots of times, it was like I was throwing batting practice to them. I'll be back. You haven't heard the last of me."
He also seemed aware of what is ailing the team in general.
"It all comes back -- everything, for the hitters and pitchers -- it all comes back to me not doing my job. It's a tough situation. You've got to call on your bullpen before the fifth inning for my third start in a row. That's way too much to ask."
Russell rarely points to a single facet in a negative sense, but he minced no words after this one.
"We've got to get past the third or fourth inning," Russell said. "We just can't continue to cover that many innings out of our bullpen. We've just got to do a better job with our rotation. Unfortunately, with Ross down, we've got to cover a spot there, as well. We're looking into it, and we'll make a decision in the next couple of days."
Absymal as the Pirates' overall pitching numbers are, those of the starters are worse: 8.13 ERA, an average start of 4 2/3 innings, an average of 17.8 pitches per inning, a 316 opponents' batting average and 16 home runs. The inning count, pitch average and batting average are the worst marks in the majors.
First Published April 23, 2010 12:00 am