Second Chances, First Place: Inside the Pirates' Rookie-and-Reclamation-Project Pitching Staff

One of the knocks on baseball’s dual wild-card system is that it leaves the winner of the play-in game at a real disadvantage, forcing the club to pitch its ace in the win-or-go-home match, then turn around and start the division series without being able to reset its rotation.

Given that reality, our collective instinct might be to look at the tight NL Central race, where the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds could all still win the division or land a wild-card berth, and wonder which of the three contenders is best equipped to recover from a one-game playoff. Only, it turns out this isn’t such an interesting question, because all three teams boast enough starting pitching depth to survive entering the NLDS with a suboptimal rotation, plus enough reliable relievers to compensate if a starter has a bad night.

It’s more interesting to examine how these three teams constructed such strong staffs, particularly the Pirates, who have been one of this season’s biggest surprises thanks largely to the unproven arms and reclamation projects who have helped them post a 3.27 team ERA, second-best in the National League.

The Cardinals’ pitching strength has become a matter of course. The Reds built their staff by the books, investing top-10 picks in Mike Leake and Homer Bailey, throwing big free-agent money at Aroldis Chapman, and sending four players to San Diego for nominal ace Mat Latos. The Pirates? They paired a top prospect with two seemingly washed-up veterans in the rotation and built a bullpen of recycled parts to match. And it worked. The Pirates are 87-63, tied with the Cardinals atop the Central, and well-positioned to earn the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1992.

That top prospect, Gerrit Cole, was the no. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. In the interest of full disclosure, he’s also a pitcher whose repertoire makes me blush and look away like a teenager who’s been caught staring at a pretty girl. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Cole throws a fastball that’ll hit 100 miles per hour in a pinch, plus a pitch that most would call a changeup, but is really baseball’s equivalent of the slo-mo drug from Dredd. He’s good enough to turn into the Pirates’ Latos or an Adam Wainwright someday.

That day isn’t quite here, though. As good as Cole has been, he’s only 105⅓ innings into his career, meaning he doesn’t have the kind of track record that entitles him to start either the play-in game or Game 1 of the NLDS without generating at least a little controversy. That’s OK, because teammates A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano have been the equal (or close to it) of any pitcher the Reds and Cardinals can field, with the exception of Wainwright.

Burnett and Liriano are both veteran pitchers with postseason experience, and they were both top prospects coming up. They also both hit very bumpy baseball roads, making their respective resurgences in Pittsburgh all the more improbable.

If you believe in microcosms, Burnett’s no-hitter on May 12, 2001, is a pretty good one. Burnett struck out seven and didn’t allow a run or a hit, but he walked nine batters and had to throw 129 pitches to get there. Burnett’s always had no. 1 starter’s stuff — his knuckle-curve in particular carries a dash of “go to hell” with its two-plane break — but issues with command, control, and consistency have led to his high-profile exits from three baseball cities.

In 2012, the Pirates traded two minor leaguers for Burnett, getting the Yankees, who’d soured on the right-hander, to take on almost two-thirds of his remaining contract. Since assuming his role as den mother of the Pirates’ young staff, Burnett has been good for about 200 league-average innings per season, which isn’t bad for a 36-year-old starter who’s gone enough miles and carries enough baggage to qualify as a commercial airliner.

Liriano, meanwhile, has been an even more amazing story. He was the game’s most exciting young pitcher in 2006, but late that summer, he went through the forearm pain–to–Tommy John surgery progression that terrifies general managers. He missed the entire 2007 season, came back in 2008, and posted an ERA above 5.00 in three of the next five seasons.

When Pirates GM Neal Huntington signed Liriano this offseason, it was a buy-low move. Since then, all Liriano has done is turn in the best season ever for a starting pitcher against left-handed hitters. Sometimes lottery tickets like Liriano pay off, sometimes they really pay off, and sometimes they lead to so many riches that it’s almost hilarious.

The Pirates’ reclamation job continued in the bullpen. Jason Grilli’s rise from scrub to All-Star closer has been well-documented. Vin Mazzaro still hasn’t entirely lived down the 14 earned runs he surrendered in two-plus innings against the Indians in 2011, but he’s posted a 2.56 ERA in 70⅓ innings this season. And then there’s Mark Melancon, whose resurgence might be the most amazing of all.

Melancon delivered an impressive cameo as Houston’s closer in 2011, but when asked to fill the same role for Boston in 2012, he descended into self-parody. One of the underrated fun things about being a baseball fan in 2012 was checking the box score to see if Melancon had produced more outs than earned runs; in April, Melancon allowed 11 earned runs on only 71 pitches, and his ERA didn’t drop below 27.00 until June 15, or below 10.00 until July 2. Following that nightmare, however, Melancon has turned into one of the best relief pitchers in the game in 2013, posting a 1.07 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 67⅓ innings, thanks to an 8-to-1 K/BB ratio and a dive-bombing cutter.

The Pirates’ collective pitching dominance has been seriously impressive to watch, but like all pleasant surprises, the threat of the other shoe dropping looms at all times.

Even as Liriano flummoxed Cubs hitters this past Sunday, carpet-bombing them with fastballs for six hitless innings, there was the constant, lingering fear Pirates fans know so well: the fear that it would all fall apart. And it did. Manager Clint Hurdle, perhaps seduced by the possibility of a no-hitter, sent Liriano out to start the seventh inning after Liriano had gotten himself into trouble with walks in the sixth. Liriano allowed a single, a home run, and another single, and after a mere eight pitches, he and the Pirates’ two-run lead were gone.

Maybe that blip was inevitable. A comeback like Liriano’s was improbable enough. Coupling it with equally stunning resurgences from Burnett and Melancon, plus an instant-impact rookie like Cole, seems like the kind of miracle only the baseball gods could allow.

The Pirates’ championship hopes rest on that miracle lasting a little while longer.

Filed Under: Cincinnati Reds, MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals

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Michael Baumann is a writer for Crashburn Alley of the ESPN SweetSpot Network.

Archive @ mj_baumann