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Arms race forthcoming for Pirates

July 1, 2014
By MATTHEW PEASLEE - Sports writer (mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com) , Herald-Star

A.J. Burnett didn't get the ball for the Pirates in Game 5 of the 2013 National League Division Series.

But he could get back on the mound for Pittsburgh as it makes a second-half push towards the playoffs this year.

As the calendar turns to July, rumors across all of Major League Baseball will be flying as the non-waiver trade deadline occurs at the end of the month.

The Pirates started off the in-season hot stove by shipping aging reliever Jason Grilli to the Angels in exchange for Ernesto Frieri. So far, the move could be seen as a win because Frieri, 28, didn't allow a baserunner pitching in the ninth inning of Saturday's game against the Mets.

Grilli, meanwhile, allowed the winning run in Sunday's Los Angeles loss to the Royals.

He also accounted for six of the Pirates' 14 blown saves this season.

Pittsburgh won't necessarily be on the market for relief pitchers this month, but general manager Neal Huntington is said to be seeking additional strength in the starting rotation.

That's where Burnett could come into play.

National baseball writer John Perrotto reported that Burnett, as well as Diamondbacks starter Brandon McCarthy, are each high on the Pirates' radar to improve a staff that ranks 11th in the National League with a 3.79 earned run average.

This comes after Edinson Volquez dazzled in Sunday's win over the Mets, allowing the Pirates to take three of four in a weekend series.

The Diamondbacks come to PNC Park today for a three-game series.

Burnett is 5-7 on the year with the Phillies and sports a 3.89 ERA. In 111 innings this season, he's issued 47 walks - which leads the league.

According to Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post, Burnett has lost 1 MPH on his fastball - from an average of 92.5 to 91.4 - between June 2013 and June 2014.

With the fastball being Burnett's go-to pitch and with approximately 17 starts left to make this season, he likely won't be recovering from that lost velocity.

Burnett is coming off two of his most solid starts of the season for the Phillies, who are in last place in the National League East Division.

He struck out eight and gave up five hits in seven innings in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins on Wednesday. Five days earlier, he gave up seven hits and just one run in a complete game win against Cardinals.

It is an improvement from his first two starts of the season when he combined to give up 16 hits in 11 innings, while surrendering nine earned runs in a pair of losses to the Blue Jays and Angels.

Greenberg says Burnett's ZiPS projections, a formula devised to calculate future statistics based on player performance in the past four years, give him a 10-13 record in with a 3.98 ERA.

Numbers like that certainly wouldn't hurt the Pirates as they search for a second-straight berth in the MLB playoffs - an unheard of scenario for this club in the past two decades.

Currently, Pittsburgh is 1.5 games out of the National League Wild Card standings. If the season ended today, the Dodgers and the Giants out of the West Division would both play in the Wild Card Game. The Reds, Cardinals and Nationals are even in competition with the Pirates, as well.

Fransciso Liriano led Pittsburgh in the 2013 Wild Card Game - a 6-2 win in front of 40,487-black clad maniacs in the stands at PNC Park.

Liriano has fallen off this year, though. Currently on the disabled list with an oblique strain, he will be available to pitch sometime this week. Liriano has a 4.60 ERA with 77 strikeouts and 36 walks in 14 starts.

He has a record of 1-6.

Gerrit Cole, who was given the nod over Burnett, in the 6-1 NLDS deciding loss, struggled in his return off the disabled list on Saturday against the Mets.

Jeff Locke takes the mound at PNC Park today against Arizona. Locke was an All-Star this time last year with an 8-2 record and 2.15 ERA. Now, he's made just five starts after starting the year in Indianapolis but has posted a 3.74 ERA with 23 strikeouts and only four walks.

Vance Worley will continue to be a mainstay in the rotation. He is 2-0 with a 1.74 ERA in three starts.

Volquez struck out seven and didn't allow a run in seven innings on Sunday to bring his season ERA down to 4.07.

Brandon Cumpton was questionably booted out of the rotation and off the 25-man roster to clear space for Cole. A move to the bullpen would have worked, too, but for the 25-year old with a 3-2 record and 4.61 ERA, maybe staying in a similar groove with Indianapolis - pitching every fifth day - will groom him for a call up if needed later in the year.

Another challenging decision will come when Liriano is ready to come off the shelf. Locke or Worley, though performing well, may be shafted.

So is the addition of a Burnett-like pitcher even necessary?

I think so. Pitching has failed the hitting, so far, for the Pirates. It was the opposite last season as the team acquired Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and Josh Buck to bolster the offense. Now, a move must be made to strengthen the starters.

Burnett's impact, in particular, goes beyond what he can do on the mound. His fiery personality may or may not have lost him some friends in the clubhouse, but he was the Pirates' leader the past two years. Though he struggled in the division series against the Cardinals, he still helped get the Pirates to a history-making point with 26 wins and an average ERA of 3.45.

He can do it again in 2014.

The Phillies are slated to play the Pirates at PNC Park this weekend. Burnett is pitching tonight against the Marlins, so he will be available to go against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

He will undoubtedly receive a standing ovation by the visiting crowd for his contributions to making Steel City baseball fun again.

With Burnett back in the black and gold, it could be another fun stretch run in the standings.

(Peaslee, a Youngstown native, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)

 
 
 

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