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With healthy Wandy, Bucs won't miss Burnett

Left-hander with surprisingly high ceiling could help rotation to another strong year

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Wandy Rodriguez doesn't walk with a swagger. He has to reach back to hit 90 mph on the radar gun.

No, he's not A.J. Burnett.

But watch Rodriguez on the mound, take a look at how well he was pitching when he was healthy last season, and it's easy to see why the Pirates didn't think they had to break the budget to bring back Burnett, or even make him a qualifying offer, for fear that he would take it.

Starting pitching was the biggest reason that the Bucs were a playoff team a year ago. The staff hadn't ranked above 11th in ERA in the National League this century, and then jumped to fourth last season, thanks to guys like Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. They'll be in big trouble if they slide down the ranks of starting staffs this season. They'll also be shocked.

"Good pitching is good pitching," Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. "It's not a fluke. These guys can go out there and pitch."

For years, Pittsburgh players bristled when asked about a streak of losing seasons that had reached 20 before the 2013 team won 94 games. But it is fast becoming tiresome to deal with questions about picking up where they left off on the way to the NL Division Series.

"I don't think we have to do any more than we did last year," said closer Jason Grilli, a first-time All-Star at age 36 in 2013. "I think you guys kind of have that bar, whether we're going to be above that bar, below that bar. The last-year bar -- it's the bar everybody's going to talk about. This is this year. To me, we're good. We know that. We just have to play and do what we can and what we're capable of. I think we're going to be fine in that department."

A healthy, effective Rodriguez -- the same guy who has been bouncing around camp this spring -- can only help. He made only 12 starts before being sidelined with a strained left forearm last season, which kept him out the rest of the year.

Rodriguez seems poised to show why general manager Neal Huntington traded for him at midseason in 2012, knowing the deal would turn his club option for '14 into a player option. The deal hasn't worked so far, but it's down to now or never, especially for Rodriguez.

At 35 years old, this is a huge season for Rodriguez. He can be an impact guy for the Bucs, but the reality is the team can survive if he doesn't step up with a 30-start, 190-inning season. This is an organization that has been collecting good arms through the Draft, and for insurance, took a $5 million flier on Edinson Volquez. It also employs Jeanmar Gomez, who is becoming one of baseball's best swing men.

Key down, nervous Pirates fans.

If you're worried about the Bucs because they had a quiet offseason, because they didn't keep Burnett or add Kendrys Morales or another first baseman, you should relax. This is a team that will feel good about itself as long as Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez can kill the ball, and so far this spring, they've combined to go 14-for-28 with five extra-base hits, including two homers.

McCutchen's 3-for-3 performance, including a double and an opposite-field blast off Vance Worley, was the high point of a 6-5 loss to the Twins on Friday at the nicely updated McKechnie Field, where the Pirates have trained since 1969. Rodriguez worked two clean innings.

Replacing Burnett isn't the biggest issue for the Bucs, who are off to a fast start in the Grapefruit League (6-2-1). As important as he was to the turnaround of the pitching staff over his two seasons, he wasn't one of the 16 NL pitchers to work at least 200 innings last season and was bypassed in favor of Cole for Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals.

With Rodriguez healthy and prospects Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham coming fast, the Pirates have the depth to replace Burnett, whose WAR was 1.7 last year. Cole, who wasn't promoted until June 11, generated a 1.3 WAR and projects to be capable of a lot better -- maybe even the 4.1 that Justin Verlander hung up in 2006, his first full season. Although still a promise, not a guarantee, he's on that kind of career arc.

The biggest question for Pittsburgh's pitching staff is whether Liriano can come close to duplicating his 2013 success. He's been wildly inconsistent throughout his career, as the White Sox experienced after trading for him down the stretch in 2012.

Rodriguez, when he's been healthy, has been consistent. His ceiling? It's higher than you might think, and he's learning new tricks.

"He's a special pitcher, because he can locate his curveball on both sides of the plate, and he can throw a changeup pretty much at any time he wants to," Martin said.

Before going on the disabled list last year, Rodriguez had put together a 3.59 ERA in his 12 starts, with a career-low WHIP of 1.12. He was getting a lot of help from the Bucs' defense, which should also be true this season. Rodriguez didn't throw his fastball as often as when he was in his prime with the Astros, but he's lost less than a mile per hour off of it, averaging 89.3 mph last season.

What would 30 starts with that ERA look like? Rodriguez's WHIP and ERA were both lower than Cole Hamels last year, but Hamels was a workhorse, and no one projects that for Rodriguez. But if he could pitch 200 innings with the same results as last year, he'd be better than Ricky Nolasco and Dillon Gee were in 2013, and those two guys averaged a 2.0 WAR.

Rodriguez doesn't know anything about all that. He just knows he is feeling great, and that his level of concern is dropping every time he takes the mound.

Martin is having fun catching him and the rest of the Pirates' staff.

"It just seems like they're ahead of the hitters right now," Martin said. "Hopefully, we can keep that trend all year long."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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