The Pittsburgh Pirates' starting rotation has been a key component of the team's first-half success in 2011 and 2012, keeping the team afloat while the offense struggled at the start of the season.
While there are many question marks in this year's rotation, the Bucs also boast several higher ceiling pitchers in addition to more credible depth than they have had in previously.
It will be interesting to see how the back of the Pirates' rotation, which is not fully set yet, shakes out over the first few months of the season, as well as when they give some of their higher-impact prospects a shot in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates enter the season with only two real "sure things" at the top of their rotation. Both A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez may see some decline, but each comes off a strong 2012 season and can be labeled a somewhat reliable veteran at this point.
Yankees fans would probably argue with this description of Burnett, who saw substantial improvement in his first season in Pittsburgh thanks to an improved walk rate. But his advanced metrics were generally decent in New York. Meanwhile, Rodriguez is staving off decreased strikeout rates thanks to solid command.
James McDonald, the team's No. 3 starter, is the biggest wild card in the rotation and likely on the team as a whole. McDonald was one of the best pitchers in the National League before the All-Star break, and he was worse than replacement level after it. If McDonald can locate his fastball, he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter.
The No. 4 and No. 5 slots in the rotation are essentially up for grabs, though Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens likely have the inside track on those positions when healthy. Their inability to stay healthy is essentially the only thing these two pitchers have in common. Liriano can strike out anyone but remains extremely erratic, while Karstens relies on command and consistency.
Liriano and Karstens almost certainly will not both be in the Opening Day rotation (Liriano in particularly is not likely to return from his most recent injury by then), so other candidates may be considered. At the moment, the erratic Jonathan Sanchez and former prospect Jeff Locke appear to have the inside track. The Sanchez experiment will end quickly if he cannot throw strikes, while Locke can be a serviceable No. 4 or No. 5 starter until a better option comes along.
Even with seven players listed in the "Starters" category, there are still a few additional pitchers who may fit into the Pirates' 2013 rotation plans.
Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Chris Leroux can start if necessary, though all profile as nothing more than sixth starter or swing reliever types. Given that they are no better than the ninth or tenth options on this team, that is fine for the Pirates, and it's important both to have these types of players and not have them be your first option if a starting pitcher gets injured.
Kyle McPherson is another former prospect who is just about ready to join the big club, but unlike Locke, McPherson is ripe for a little more seasoning, as he has only pitched 18 innings in Triple-A. McPherson has a higher ceiling than Locke, as well, as he has the ability to post somewhat serviceable strikeout numbers while maintaining his pinpoint control.
Phil Irwin is another relatively under-the-radar prospect who may be able to help the big-league club this season. Irwin displayed superior control in Double-A before before excelling in a brief Triple-A debut, and he is another player the Pirates can look to for solid starts as the season wears on.
Top prospect Gerrit Cole is the big name to watch here. Cole will start the season in Triple-A, but the Pirates' No. 1 prospect will likely be in Pittsburgh by the middle of the season. He will probably take a few lumps early, but Cole is the kind of player who can give the Pirates a huge boost toward contention, the race for .500, or whatever it is they find themselves playing for in July.
Down on the Farm
Even after accounting for Cole, there is no shortage of high-impact pitching talent in the Pirates' farm system.
Slotting in just behind Cole is Jameson Taillon, who is probably a year behind Cole in his development but also profiles as a potential future ace. Taillon, who turned some heads with a strong performance against the United States in this year's World Baseball Classic, should spend most of the season in Triple-A (even if he doesn't start there) before making his Pittsburgh debut in 2014.
Luis Heredia is still considered to have ace stuff as well, though at the young age of 18 he remains a long way from the majors. Heredia seems to be progressing solidly though, and Pirates fans look forward to potentially seeing him pitch more innings in full-season ball this year.
As usual, the Pirates have several projectable right-handed pitchers worth watching in the lower to mid levels of the system. The more well-known names here are Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes and Tyler Glasnow, while new draftees Adrian Sampson and Jonathan Sandfort look to replenish the ranks.
Other names of interest for Bucs' fans, due to either draft pedigree or recent acquisitions, include Zack Von Rosenborg and Stolmy Pimentel.