First Pitch: The Impact if the Pirates Lose A.J. Burnett For the Year

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.

  • I love AJ and what he has done for this team his three seasons here. That said, he has a tendancy to blow out his arm EVERY YEAR. Ask any NY fan and you will find it’s not just here. You need great starts in June to get into the playoffs in October but AJ tends to spend his tendons early. Happ, or Liz may be the better bet to help us down the stretch. If missing a few turns means a 99% Burnett in September I would be elated but if he’s tossed his last pitch for us I certainly will never feel cheated.

  • The Cards OPS is 50 points lower against lefties (.729 vs .679), and we now have 3 LHP in the rotation, so if the Bucs can win the WC game with Cole, they can throw Liriano, Locke, Cole, Happ, and Liriano in a 5 game series with Stl.

    (If you like wRC+ better, Cards are 90 vs. LHP and 102 vs. RHP)

  • The last month or so the cards and pirates have either won or lost on the same day for the most part. Kinda hard to gain any ground that way, somethings gotta give. Being a pirates fan I say it will give in the pirates favor, the other reason being that the cards have been way to lucky with all the injuries and not so great pitching to keep winning the way they have. With that said I still say the pirates will be in first place to stay by the end of august

    • pill………..sure hope you are right but the Bucs will have to get better in the field and smarter on the basepaths and in the batter’s box. All eyes turn to Morton, Locke, the new additons. AJ’s exam and a very big 6 game homestand against teams in the hunt.

      • They’ve had terrible fundamentals at least the last three years and still win somehow, it ain’t usually pretty or fun to watch but the w’s keep going up at the end so here’s to head scratching yet somehow winning baseball.

  • I really think the Cardinals are due for a serious regression. However, the Pirates also have such a tough schedule in the second half and 5.5 games to make up. Even if they regress as many of us expect, it will still be quite difficult for the Pirates to make up that much ground given the schedule. Here is hoping for the best.
    The worst scenario in my eyes would be to have it come down to the last game again, and the Pirates throw Cole or Liriano to try to win the division, don’t do so, and then the other throws the wild card game. Then all of the sudden game one of the NLDS becomes Locke/Morton/Happless. Yikes.

  • lets see if glasnow shakes off the nerves and pitches better his next 2 or 3 starts, he is our # 3 right now.

    • I think the Liz start tonight is very important because a decision will have to made after two starts on Happ if he falters. I do not believe Glasnow will be a consideration unless he pitches lights out for at least 5 starts. Richards is 2-0 for the Cubs, and won a big game for them yesterday. Looking at the NH quotes that the Bucs were not looking for a starter before the deadline and the admission that they had to scramble to get one on deadline day, it is too bad AJ was not more forthcoming about his elbow problems. The Bucs probably would have kept Richard and worked harder and sooner to trade for a quality starter.

      • Stop saying Richard is 2-0 like that makes him good. Wins dont show the worth of a pitcher, and Richard was awful his first two starts for CHC and thus them DFAing him and all of baseball going “pass”.

        If you are using Richard as the “this guy should have stayed” thats poor. He’s not good, and keeping him made no sense unless you start him for a month during July. He’s had 2 bad games, 1 so-so with a quick hook, and 1 good. His track record doesnt make many think he’s likely to suddenly be a sub 4 arm.

        • As usual, Luke, you don’t respond to the point of the comment, which is that AJ said yesterday he has been hurting for some time and obviously did not disclose that to the coaches and the GM. Huntington said in his interview yesterday that what happened in AJ’s last start and their meeting with him the next day forced him to scramble to get a starter, minutes before the deadline.
          “wins don’t show the worth of a pitcher”? That is quite the blanket generalization, one for us all to remember. Thanks for that.

          • Who is a better pitcher?:

            Francisco Liriano or
            Rubby De La Rosa (ARI)?

            Jeff Locke: 6 wins
            Liriano: 7 wins. No one mistakes Locke as “nearly” as good as Liriano. Wins dont show the worth of a pitcher accurately.

    • He is 22 yrs old. He will be 23 on August 23. Don’t you dare talk about ‘shaking off nerves’
      He will be further developing additional pitches in Spring Training 2016. He will be lifting weights this winter, continuing his off season development. His brother Ted is a Decathlete graduate of Notre Dame after graduating from Wm S Hart High, Tyler’s school. He mentors Tyler in weight training, Development is the name of the game.

  • Yesterday’s start was the first time in a while Morton looked comfortable with his landing spot. I think he was having some mechanical problems his past several, not getting his foot down where he wanted it, and that’s what was sending the ball all over the place. If that was the problem, and if yesterday is an indication he has corrected it, I think he’ll pitch better the rest of the season.

  • Without sounding purposely contrarian, I think a decent argument can be made that losing Burnett now doesn’t actually hurt the team’s playoff chances; potentially even improves them..

    As we saw last year, the worst possible scenario you can find yourself sitting in the new Wild Card era is low-probability chance at the Division during the last series of the year. Hurdle chose to take a shot, and the result was Madison Bumgarner and a rested Giants club vs. Edinson Volquez.

    Losing first-half Burnett probably kills any chance left of catching the best team in baseball down 5.5 games with only two months to play, but that was always going to be an extremely small probability in the first place. Burnett most certainly won’t be the difference in losing a four game lead on a Wild Card birth, either.

    That gets us to the playoff picture. Cole will be able to be lined up for the Wild Card game, with Liriano picking up Game 1 of the NLDS. Essentially leaving the same scenario the Pirates faced in 2013 when they pushed ST Louis to five games, except this time Cole is a true ace and the Pirates will not have to face Wano twice. I’d call that matchup, in which the Pirates would get at least three starts from Cole and Liriano combined, a toss up. I don’t see Burnett’s loss hurting those odds much at all.

    • Overall I agree with your premise, but how can you get three starts from Cole in a five-game series?

      • “…in which the Pirates would get at least three starts from Cole and Liriano combined,…”

        I edited that sentence for clarity…meant three starts from Cole and Liriano *combined*.

    • That is a good point. It could be a blessing in disguise. I do think St. Louis has collapse potential for the end of the season, but if they collapse, we may pass them without Burnett. I agree, though, we need too much help for him to make the big difference in the regular season, and if we’re not going to pass them, we might as well set ourselves up for the wild card game.

    • uh cole and liriano and pray for something that rhymes with liriano.

      • You won’t ever see me argue that the Pirates will boast a better 1-4 than the other clubs they’ll face, but playoff history shows your top 1-2 starters are far, far more important than your 3-4. Morton is absolutely a viable playoff starter, which really only puts one turn in question.

        The Giants put up a banner last year with Peavy throwing only 16 IP over four starts with an ERA over 6, Vogelsong throwing 12 IP over four starts with an ERA over 6, and Hudson barely better than them.

    • Good points. Not that this really impacts your argument, but I’m not counting Wainwright out yet.

    • Well said. A scenario that played out similar to the first playoff experience would seem to tilt a bit in our favor since Cole pitches the 2 biggest games. Also, its all SSS and not reliable buuuut, AJ’s record against STL (particularly in STL) is such that a decent Morton outing does seem potentially as good or better than in STL AJ.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 3, 2015 9:20 am

    What it means is we’re in trouble, if our number 3, 4, and 5 are Morton, Locke, and Happ. I say that in spite of Morton’s great start yesterday. Every year, he teases us with a few great starts, only to fall back into extended mediocrity. I am not expecting him to pitch like yesterday on a consistent basis from here on out. If he does, you can all remind me and I will happily eat crow! 🙂

    We need to bring up Glasnow in another 3-4 weeks to bolster the rotation for the stretch run. He can replace Happ.

    • Get that resume updated and submitted to all the orginizations !

    • If Morton falls back into mediocrity, that would make him roughly a #3, so he can go ahead and do that.

      Average is valuable. We always forget that as sports fans, but it’s true. Average is valuable.

      • a #3 pitcher is not mediocre, a #5 pitcher is. Maybe a #3 on the 2007 pirates is mediocre, but not on a playoff team

    • Id think 6-7 innings and 2 runs or less would be considered a “good” start from Morton for most fans. Keep the team in the game, hand it to the bullpen 7-8-9.

      By that metric (which you can surely disagree with, its subjective) he’s been good 6 times this year in 13 starts. He’s inconsistent, but thats not unusual for many many back end starters. Decent stuff, lack of consistency leads to many arms being back end rather than mid rotation.

      With Blanton on the roster, i think rolling with Morton in a playoff series seems okay (not ideal). Have a quick hook if things roll bad, and if you get good Charlie you pull him after 6.

      • I’d give him the KC start in the plus column too. That he ended up giving up five runs was on Hurdle, IMO. He was solid thru six.

        • As would i, but i figured some arent as giving as am i with Morton. He also tends to see a few more unearned runs that others due to relying on defense more than some.

  • I read somewhere that JA Happ has one option left. Is that true?

    • The option is not to ever pitch him against the Cards, lol.

      This is how smart Mozeliak is. He obviously knew AJ was hurting, probably due to hacking Bucs’ computers. And he knew that Happ was one of Neal’s few options for a starter. So instead of trading for Lind, Mozeliak got Moss who absolutely hammers Happ (1.600+ OPS) despite the lefty-on-lefty matchup.

      Devious guys those Cards.

      Anyway, Happ had one option remaining as late as the start of the 2013 season. However, he spent some time in minors in both 13 and 14, but not sure if that was rehab or optional assignment.

  • If Morton can consistently find his stuff early and work clean 1st innings the rest of the way, that would be a huge confidence builder for both teammates and fans.

    Bucs have played the Cards relatively evenly for two years now. They can win a 5 game series or lose one. I don’t know if any changes to either team’s roster between now and Aug 31 would make a significant difference.

    I would have no worries about any NL team in a 7-game series except the Dodgers with Kershaw/Grienke potentially throwing 5 of the 7 games and at least 4. Travel days ensure the main four in our pen won’t all have to work three days in a row. If (and it’s a big if) Caminero has turned the corner, then Bucs only need Locke for five innings, Charlie and Frankie for six. Cole would have to go longer. Happ wouldn’t pitch anyway.

    Most important, we’d need Cutch and Walker to perform and cut down on the fielding miscues and mental errors. Those last two factors, IMO, will have greater impact than the loss of AJ.

  • Is there any way that we get Worley back?
    Will he definitely be claimed if he goes to waivers?
    Will of all people the Reds claim him out of spite?

    At this point we need some Happ insurance.
    Is that Liz or Volstead?

  • If we are really concerned we could also pick up a starter through a waiver trade.

  • Replacing AJ with Happ is like replacing JHay with Morel.

  • Often times a key injury will galvanize a team and serve to fuel the competitive juices of their teammates. I’m hopeful Locke will respond in this manner since he’s so close to AJ personally.

    On another note, what is it about the Reds that turns Cole into Morton, and Morton into Cole?

    • Scott: Locke has been pitching well. In the Last 7 Starts he would be our 3rd best SP with a 3.20 ERA, and in the Last 15 he would be our 4th best SP with a 3.98 ERA. These are excellent numbers for a No. 5 guy in the Rotation.

      We needed that from Charlie yesterday and he stepped up. His stuff was electric. I am hoping he replaces Burnett as our No. 3, and JA Happ becomes our No. 4, or vice-versa. Just so we have a solid guy at No.3 to replace AJ, who gave us much better than anyone ever expected going into 2015.

      Our hitting has to be better.

  • Morton pitched well in the postseason and did so against the Cardinals. That does not imply that he will have the same results this season, especially since he is consistently inconsistent. But the stuff is in his arm and he can, at times, pound the zone with nearly unhittable (read: Difficult to squarely hit) sinkers and curveballs. Prime Ground Chuck™ is a strong pitcher. So…. Of course, Select Ground Chuck™ makes common left handed batters look like Tony Gwynn in his best days.

    We could be set if Good Chollie shows up the rest of the year.

  • The cards besides being good have also been extremely lucky this year, it’s time for the pendulum to swing and I say the pirates will be in first place by the end of august through september. Then let the cards worry about the wildcard and how to set up their rotation for the next round against the pirates.

    • The 2015 Cardinals rotation and pitching overall has the highest strand rate of all time, one would think that should change.

      • Clusterluck is like the wind, one doesn’t know when it will begin and end. Hopefully the winds of change will start blowing through STL sooner than later.

      • I’d love for us to be in first by the end of August, but if I’ve learned anything the last few years. It’s the the Cardinals will always find a way. It’s shocking how well run their organization has been.

    • End of August may be just a bit optimistic. I’m just hopeful the series in Pittsburgh at the end of September is for division lead.