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Burnett saga is over. A big question remains: do the Pirates have enough pitching depth? (Updated 11 p.m.)

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SOUTH HILLS – Pitchers and catchers hold their first workout in Bradenton, Fla. tomorrow and A.J. Burnett will not be among them. After 120 some days, the will-he-or-won’t-he soap opera is over and I don’t think the outcome is surprising. Burnett did as most free agents – what most humans do – and chose market value over a loyalty discount, agreeing to a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies Wednesday. The Phillies who were in need of an arm with Cole Hamels likely not ready for spring training.

As I’ve blogged about before, I thought extending a qualifying offer made sense and might have led to a much different outcome.  First, there’s a lot of new revenue entering the game. Second, the QO would have cut down on the market for Burnett and it would have given the Pirates a compensation-round selection had Burnett signed elsewhere. In fact the ideal outcome was perhaps securing a top 50 overall pick for a 37-year-old pitcher.

 

(UPDATE: I can confirm per source familiar with the negotiation that the Pirates offered Burnett a one-year, $12 million deal. Jon Heyman first reported).

 

Now maybe the Phillies would not have signed Burnett had he been attached to draft pick compensation but they are a win-now team. And even if they didn’t sign Burnett some team would have, right? Either that or the QO would have depressed his value enough Burnett would have eventually resigned with the Pirates. And there was little chance Burnett actually signed the QO.

 

But for whatever reason(s) – financial, performance projection, age risk and/or other – the Pirates didn’t extend the QO and didn’t offer. Give the Pirates this: they know more about Burnett than we know. Neal Huntington stated he didn’t want to put 18-20 percent of 2014 of payroll into a 37-year-old pitcher. Huntington doesn’t control total payroll but he has the ability to determine how to allocate it. And 37-year-old pitchers carry lots of risk. Had Huntington had a greater payroll to work with I suspect the QO might have been extended.

 

We can debate all this, and have, for four months.

 

We now know the Pirates move on without Burnett. We know now a critical question is this:  does this club has enough pitching depth? I suppose you could say every team enters the spring with the same looming calamity that is a rash of pitching injuries. Battling pitching attrition is one of the game’s biggest challenges.

 

One of the overlooked storylines is of 2013 is how the Pirates overcame significant pitching injuries. Eighty percent of the Pirates’ 2013 Opening Day rotation - 80 percent – was not in the starting rotation for the team in August. The only 2013 Opening Day starter who was pitching for the Pirates in August? Burnett.

 

Good teams typically have pitching depth or stay remarkably healthy. Look at St. Louis which lost starters Jamie Garcia, Chris Carpenter and closer Jason Motte last season and reloaded with Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal.

 

The Pirates overcame the injury losses of James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez and the performance decline of Jeff Locke and the busted scratch-off lottery ticket that was Jonathan Sanchez because they had a reserve of high-upside pitchers. The Pirates overcame those injuries mostly from adding Francisco Liriano (who would have been in the rotation if not for the offseason injury), Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole after Opening Day.

 

The good news is the club is in line to get more innings out of Morton, Cole and Liriano in 2014  – close to 200 innings – if they stay healthy. That could make up for the Burnett productivity loss. The good news is the Pirates’ 2014 Opening Day rotation should be much stronger than its 2013 Opening Day rotation.

 

The bad news is this: there is not as much high-upside in reserve.

 

*Jameson Taillon is an arm who has impact potential come June but expectations should be limited even in an era where power arms seem to have little trouble making impacts from Day 1 of their arrivals. Remember Cole was pitching more like a mid-rotation arm June-August until he got his breaking ball on track in September.

 

*Cumpton, Locke and Gomez all look like back-of-the-rotation types. They’re valuable in a soaking-up-innings way but I don’t see a Liriano or Morton among them.

 

*Stolmy Pimentel is interesting. His fastball averaged 95.4 mph in relief last season. But his MiLB numbers hardly suggest future dominance.

 

*Nick Kingham is close but I’m not sure the club wants to force him into action in 2014. Tyler Glasnow is at least 200 minor league innings away.

 

In summary, the Pirates have high-upside arms beginning the year in the rotation in 2014 but have fewer such arms in reserve than they had a year ago. And every team will need more than five starting pitchers over the course of a season.

 

There are immediate concerns:

 

*Who knows how healthy Wandy Rodriguez is?

 

*Asking Edinson Volquez to have a Liriano-like turnaround is asking a lot. I think Volquez will pitch closer to his 2013 FIP (4.24) than his 2013 ERA (5.71) but he has serious command issues to resolve. Liriano pitched like an ace. A more realistic expectation is for Volquez to fit as a solid No. 4 or No. 5.

 

*Cole has 117 innings under his belt. Morton has never thrown more than 171 innings in a major league season. The only Pirates’ starting pitcher pitcher to average 200 innings over the last two season was Burnett.

 

The Pirates lose depth and innings with Burnett in addition to NL leading groundball and walk rates. They can fill the void with good health. But should injuries arise do they have the depth?

***

Programming note to begin things here today. Colleague Rob Biertempfel has embarked for Bradenton, Fla. this morning and I’ll be joining him in a few weeks there as we tag-team spring training. Pirates pitchers and catchers report today refreshing words in our arctic climate, right?

– TS

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