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Does A.J. Burnett Have to Be the Ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Rotation Again?

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COMMENTARY | A.J. Burnett will toe the rubber on opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first time in his 14-year career a manager has bestowed such an honor on him.

For Burnett, it's better late than never. He was set to open the season last year at the top of the Pirates' pitching rotation and would have made his first opening day start if it weren't for a bunted ball he took off the face during spring training.

Burnett bounced back from breaking his orbital bone to have one of the best seasons of his career. He posted a 3.51 ERA and won 16 games for the Pirates, the most since he won a career-best 18 games with the New York Yankees in 2008. His earned run average was the lowest since recording a 3.44 ERA in 2005 for the Florida Marlins.

He's clearly earned the honor of throwing the first pitch of the Pittsburgh Pirates' 2013 season next week when the Chicago Cubs visit PNC Park on opening day. Pirates' fans hope it will be the first of many thrown by 36-year-old Burnett this year, but should they be optimistic that he can repeat the same successes he enjoyed last year? For the team's sake, he better be up to the challenge.

The rest of the rotation

Fans should cross their fingers that Burnett can stay healthy during the rigorous schedule, if only for the fact that the depth chart below him in the rotation gets a little murky. Sure, there's Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald, both who come with a certain amount of inconsistency in their games.

Then there's Jonathan Sanchez, whom the Pirates announced Tuesday would be part of the rotation to start the season. He compiled an 8.07 ERA in 15 appearances last year in between stops in Kansas City and Colorado and could find himself out of the rotation quickly if he stumbles out of the gate.

But after that is anyone's guess less than one week away from opening day. There are currently three pitchers vying for the final rotation spot in spring training. Two of them, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, have labored in the minor leagues for the past several seasons and have few major league starts under their belts. Both have pitched fairly well this spring, so it wouldn't be surprising to see one or both of them make the roster or crack the rotation. It also wouldn't be surprising to see either one struggle under the pressure of their first full major league season.

Then there's Jeanmar Gomez, who set a career high in throwing 90 innings last year for the Cleveland Indians. He also set a career high in pitching to a 5.96 ERA.

But all of the aforementioned names could easily find themselves out of a job when the disabled list starts to clear up. There's Jeff Karstens, a recent addition to the disabled list, and Francisco Liriano, who broke his non-throwing arm in the offseason. It's not clear now when either will return or if they'll earn a spot in the rotation. The better question yet is whether Karstens can stay healthy throughout the year, a problem that has plagued his time in Pittsburgh. There's also Charlie Morton, who's expected to rejoin the rotation sometime in June or July after missing considerable time due to Tommy John surgery.

Less than one week away from the start of the season, the starting rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates is suspect at best.

Can Burnett anchor the pitching rotation again?

Major league baseball is notorious for its grueling and demanding schedule, even for players who take to the diamond every fifth game. Burnett started 31 games last year, the fifth time in as many seasons he's started more than 30 games. Overall, he's started 165 games in the last five seasons alone. That's a lot of wear and tear on an arm that's pitched 2,162 career innings. But that's also an arm that can be counted on to be a stopper at the top of the rotation as long as he stays healthy.

Part of Burnett's success last year can be attributed to his move from the American League and into PNC Park. The pitcher gave up only 18 home runs last year, the lowest since 2008 and nearly half of the 31 bombs he gave up in 2011. He even pitched a complete game shutout last season, the first he's thrown since 2006. He'll again be throwing in the pitcher-friendly confines of PNC Park against a National League that continues to lose big hitters to the American League. Burnett should be able to recreate the success he produced last year, barring any injury or setback to his belabored arm.

In between eating lots of innings and compiling solid wins, Burnett anchored a rotation that had its share of ups and downs in terms of injuries (Charlie Morton) and inconsistencies (James McDonald). Unfortunately, it's a role he might have to reprise for the Pirates to stay in contention this year.

Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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