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What Will the Pittsburgh Pirates' Rotation Look Like in 2014?

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COMMENTARY | Last week, the Pittsburgh Pirates' A.J. Burnett announced that he was undecided on whether he wants to return for next season at the age of 37.

It's a surprising announcement given his strong performance (9-11, 3.39 ERA, topping 200 strikeouts for first time since 2008) and the excitement around the team's first winning season in 20 years. Though GM Neal Huntington has said the club will do "everything in our power" to bring him back, Burnett's performance may have even priced himself out of the Pirates' range.

So what will the rotation look like next season?

The Absolute Locks

Francisco Liriano - Widely viewed as the best signing off the offseason (the only other contender being that great deal Clint Hurdle got on paper towels at Costco), the Pirates got Liriano on a base salary of $1 million with a vesting option for $8 million next year if he stayed healthy. Not only has he been healthy, but Liriano has also arguably had the best year of his career, going 16-7 with a 2.88 ERA. It was a shock to the league, coming after two straight seasons with ERAs over 5.00, but if he pitches anything like this next year, he'll once again be an absolute bargain.

Charlie Morton - The Pirates' patience with Morton has paid off handsomely. From a 7.57 ERA in 2010 to missing extensive time with Tommy John surgery, the Pirates now have a solid mid-rotation sinker-baller that fits perfectly in front of the Pirates' ground ball-devouring defense. With one more year of arbitration-eligibility, I wouldn't be shocked if the Pirates tried to lock him up long-term.

Gerrit Cole - The concern for this top prospect was twofold: One, would he strike out enough batters in the major leagues after pedestrian K totals in the minors and, two, would he earn a good enough nickname?

While I'm on the fence about Cole 45 (whether it's referencing the handgun or the malt liquor, preferring the Primanti Bros-referencing Cole Slaw), Pirates fans are watching an ace quickly ascend to his throne. In his last seven starts, Cole has a 2.18 ERA and is striking out a batter per inning. Even more impressive is that his batting average on balls in play in that time is .345, meaning that the opposition has actually had good luck against him.

The Question Marks

Jeff Locke - Blessed with only average stuff, Locke requires strong command to both sides of the plate to succeed. While he was lucky in the first half, posting a 2.15 ERA and going to the All-Star game, he's been unlucky in the second half with a 6.12 ERA despite upping his K/9.

Unfortunately, the problem largely comes down to walks. A pitcher with Locke's fringe-average fastball simply cannot survive while walking 4.5 batters every nine innings.

Wandy Rodriguez - Rodriguez has a $13 million player option for next season, one he is expected to exercise given that he's been injured since June 5 with pain and discomfort in his forearm. If Rodriguez is healthy and effective, the Pirates will happily accept him back, his 3.59 ERA in 62 innings this year nearly matching his numbers from 2008 to 2012. Unfortunately, betting on 35-year-old starters to return from injuries is like waiting out that rash on your chest -- never a guaranteed solution.

A.J. Burnett - If Burnett comes back for another year, his place in the Pirates' rotation is assured. Hopefully, like Batman and his never-ending fight against crime, Burnett will choose a never-ending fight against batters.

Free Agent Roll of the Dice - This past offseason, the Pirates took a chance on Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez, two pitchers whose better days seemed behind them. Of course, Sanchez flamed out, surrendering 7 HRs in just 13.2 IP, but Liriano hit big. I wouldn't be surprised if the Pirates tried their luck one more time, perhaps targeting Josh Johnson (6.20 ERA in 81 innings), Phil Hughes (28-year-old former top prospect), or Colby Lewis (missed all of 2013 with elbow injury and hip surgery).

Jameson Taillon - It wouldn't be surprising if Taillon was like Cole, getting the call-up sometime midseason to boost the rotation and fill in for injuries. Taillon, also like Cole, has succeeded in the minors, but has yet to truly dominate. Taillon did get a taste of AAA and pitched effectively in six starts, posting a 3.89 ERA and striking out nine batters per nine innings.

Long Shots

Stolmy Pimentel - Pimentel struggled in 2011 and 2012 while in the Boston Red Sox's farm system, but blew through three stops for the Pirates this year. He had a 3.35 ERA in 169.1 IP between AA and AAA and has been effective since joining the Pirates' bullpen in September. That's where his future probably lies, perhaps in long relief.

Kyle McPherson - McPherson was expected to vie for a job in the back of the rotation, but an April injury kept him out the rest of the year. A number of top prospects have now moved ahead of him, meaning McPherson's chance many only come if injuries once again decimate the Pirates.

Nick Kingham - Kingham didn't start the year among Baseball America's top 10- prospects, but he had as good a season as any pitcher not named Tyler Glasnow could have. Between High-A and Double-A, Kingham went 9-6 with a 2.89 ERA, showing good command and the ability to make it as a mid-rotation starter in the major leagues. While his ceiling isn't as high as Jameson Taillon's, I wouldn't be surprised if he made it to the big league club first.

Given the Pirates' top-end talent reaching the upper minors and how long and hard a 162 game schedule is (the Pirates had 10 pitchers make at least four starts this year), I wouldn't be shocked if every person on this list made at least a couple of starts. With the talent the Pirates have been accumulating, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Michael Clair writes the news and humor blog, Old Time Family Baseball, and contributes to the Platoon Advantage. Follow him on Twitter @clairbearattack.

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