Last night, Josh Yohe reported that A.J. Burnett has been pitching in a lot of pain recently, and that he wouldn’t be having surgery, instead trying to return to pitch this year. Today, more information came out that he will have an MRI tomorrow in Pittsburgh, and that this could determine if he will pitch again. He has said that he would try to pitch if he can still be effective through the pain. Any other outcome would mean the end of his career.
This is obviously a big blow to the Pirates, as Burnett made up a strong trio at the top of their rotation. With Burnett, the Pirates rotation has combined for a 3.37 ERA, which ranks 4th in baseball. Their 3.41 xFIP, al fourth, backs that number up.
If you look at the current starters without Burnett, they have combined for a 3.59 ERA this season. That number includes J.A. Happ’s ERA with Seattle. I’d say that Francisco Cervelli might be able to give a boost to Happ with his defense and pitch framing, but Happ was pitching to Mike Zunino, who has graded well defensively this year in both caught stealing and pitch framing. And while the Mariners don’t have a strong defense, the Pirates haven’t exactly been the best defensive team this year either. The biggest hope for Happ to turn things around would be a quick fix by Ray Searage.
But let’s say Happ doesn’t turn it around. That 3.59 ERA by the five starters would still be a top ten rotation, ranking seventh in baseball. So the Pirates would be fine the rest of the season. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano have been two of the best pitchers in baseball. Cole ranks sixth in ERA, Liriano ranks 18th, and their xFIP numbers suggest that this is no fluke. Jeff Locke has actually been one of the best starters in the rotation in the last month, with a 3.26 ERA and a 3.58 xFIP. Meanwhile, Charlie Morton has struggled lately, seeing some big problems with his control.
But the Pirates don’t need every pitcher being successful all at once in order to be one of the best teams in baseball, as we’ve seen already this year. If Burnett can’t return, they should be fine, as there are so many factors that make this group a team that is on pace for 95 wins. Burnett is one of those factors, but he’s not the difference between the third best team in baseball and hosting the wild card game versus falling apart and missing the playoffs.
Here is the real concern for the Pirates: the playoffs. Unless something totally unexpected happens, the Pirates will be hosting the Wild Card game for the third year in a row. And they are going to need Gerrit Cole pitching that game. Maybe Francisco Liriano, depending on how the opponent does against left-handers. But either way, that sets up a disadvantage in the division series.
Whoever starts the Wild Card game wouldn’t be eligible to pitch again until Game 3 of the LDS. That doesn’t really make a big impact, since the non-Wild Card schedule has that pitcher going on Game 2, and in either scenario, the pitcher could only pitch once during the series. The disadvantage here is that the game two starter would go from Burnett to whoever looks to be the best option at the time, and no matter what, that will be a downgrade based on how Burnett was pitching this year.
This doesn’t mean the Pirates would lose that game. And even if they did lose, it doesn’t mean they’d lose the series. It just makes things more difficult for them.
Fortunately, they still have two top of the rotation guys, and that puts them in good company. Granted, St. Louis is in much better company, with four of the top 22 starters in baseball, ranked by ERA. The Dodgers have two of the top ten, and one more in the top 30. The Mets have two in the top 20. The Nationals have the fifth best starter, while the best starter from an ERA standpoint for the Giants is Chris Heston (although I think you could say some positive things about Madison Bumgarner).
The problem here is that if the Pirates win the Wild Card game, they’re going up against the Cardinals, who have that ridiculous rotation. Granted, that rotation doesn’t stack up the same when looking at the advanced metrics. Cole and Liriano rank in the top 11 in xFIP. The Cardinals have just one in the top 30 in xFIP, despite four of the top 22 ERAs. So the hope for the Pirates would be that the Cardinals don’t get their aces, but get the pitchers closer to the xFIP numbers. But with the way this season has gone, it seems the Cardinals manage to catch all of the breaks.
One other thing to consider here is that the Pirates might actually be fine without Burnett. He has historically struggled in St. Louis, which is where game two would be played if the Pirates advance beyond the Wild Card game. Depending on how they’re playing, it might actually be better to have Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, or J.A. Happ in game two in St. Louis over Burnett. But that doesn’t mean they might not need him for Game 4 at home, or in the NLCS and beyond if they advance.
If Burnett misses the rest of the year, it probably won’t play a big impact on the standings for the Pirates. It definitely won’t change the Wild Card game, since that should be down to Cole or Liriano. And it might not provide an impact in the LDS, based on the history of Burnett in St. Louis. But if the Pirates advance beyond the LDS against St. Louis, it would help to have Burnett, and the Pirates would have to hope that Locke, Morton, or Happ stepped up to the occasion.
**What Did Josh Bell Accomplish in Altoona? This was a great look at Bell’s progress from Sean McCool, highlighting the defense at first base and the attempts to get more power from his game.
**Tyler Glasnow Sees Mixed Results in His Triple-A Debut. Ryan Palencer covered Tyler Glasnow’s debut, and broke down his stuff and results.
**Prospect Watch: Keller Looks Good in Debut, Heredia Hit Hard. A good outing from Mitch Keller in his Bristol debut. We’ll have more on him this week.
**Chad Kuhl is the Pirates Prospects Pitcher of the Month for July. Sean will have a detailed article on him tomorrow.
**Carlos Munoz is the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month for July. And I’ll have an article on Munoz tomorrow.
**Site Updates: Credit to Our Team, and a Huge Site Upgrade Today. If you missed it from Friday, news of the new format for the Prospect Watch, plus “a day in the life” for the Pirates Prospects team.