April 16, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez (57) delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates rotation struggles signals biggest early concern

A lot has been made about the early struggles of the Pittsburgh Pirates offense and those are legit concerns as after 13 games, the Bucs rank 25th in the majors in runs scored (46). 28th in batting average (.214), 25th in on base percentage (.287) and 28th in slugging percentage (.316).

But no matter how the Pirates bats struggle, they aren’t nearly as concerning as the early performance of the Bucs starting rotation.

April 15, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald reacts after being lifted from the game against the St. Louis Cardinals during the third inning at PNC Park. The St. Louis Cardinals won 10-6. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

All signs point to the Pirates bats starting to come alive, but the same can’t be said for the pitching.

While the Bucs bullpen has been nothing short of outstanding, the same can’t be said for the starting rotation.

After 13 games, the Bucs starters have posted only a 3-7 record with a 5.23 ERA, but even more concerning than that, they have combined for only three quality starts on the season, which is the worst mark in all of baseball.

But there are some more disturbing signs than that.

The starters aren’t able to pitch deep into games, and that’s the biggest issue.

So far, the combination of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke and Phil Irwin have combined to throw only 63.2 innings on the season, which is the lowest mark in baseball of any staff.

Think about it in these terms and that on average, the Pirates starters aren’t combining to last five innings per start. That’s something that simply can’t happen.

Some of that is due to the fact that the league is hitting .267 against the starters, which ranks them only 20th in baseball.

Then there is the fact that the walks are up and the strikeouts are down.

To date, the Pirates starters have walked 31 batters (eighth most in baseball) and have only struck out 55 batters (20th). That combined with the batting average against simply means too many base runners.

What it does is really tax the Pirates bullpen, which has the sixth best ERA in baseball at 2.37. If these guys have to continue to work four-plus innings per night, the chinks in their armor will start to show.

How does the problem get fixed?

Rodriguez returning healthy will help, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Wandy (1.00 ERA) and Burnett (3.71 ERA) have done their part in the early going, but the team still has to run McDonald (5.27 ERA), Sanchez (12.96 ERA) and Locke (4.09) out there for the time being and it’s anyone’s guess what the Pirates will get from them every fifth day.

Sure guys like Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens are working their way back, but if the Pirates are banking on them being the answer, it could be too late by that time.

So far there is only one certainty.

If these guys don’t start pitching better and working deeper into games, it’s going to turn into a long season pretty quickly.

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Tags: A.J. Burnett James McDonald Jonathan Sanchez Pittsburgh Pirates Wandy Rodriguez

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