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Pirates

Colin Dunlap: Karstens Injury Leaves Pirates In Real Bind

By: Colin Dunlap
(Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

dunlap-head-shot Colin Dunlap
Weeknights, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Colin grew up in Sharpsburg and...
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Now what?

With less than a week before the Pirates break camp in anticipation for their April 1 home opener against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park, the club has one more spot to fill in the rotation and one that went to Jonathan Sanchez on Tuesday morning — who hasn’t necessarily been in top form as of late.

With right-hander Jeff Karstens scratched from his spring training start on Sunday against the Orioles and likely headed to the disabled list to begin the season, that leaves A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald as the three pitchers who solidified spots in the Pirates’ rotation before it was announced Tuesday morning that Sanchez nailed down the No. 4 spot.

No matter how you slice it, from whatever vantage you want to look at it, there’s no way having this much uncertainty this late in camp can be anything but a glaring negative on this franchise trying to extract itself out from under 20 consecutive seasons of losing.

Which gets us back to the fundamental question: Now what?

It would appear that the final spot in the Pirates’ rotation is being tussled over by three men: Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Jeanmar Gomez.

Sorry, but there’s not a ton of excitement emanating from these parts knowing that every fifth day, one of those guys is going to get the ball.

Granted, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton are due back during the season from injury — and hopefully at 100 percent — but neither is a sure bet to do anything.

What is as close to a sure bet as anything is Sanchez, along with one of those aforementioned arms, will have to play a big part for the Pirates over the early portion of the season.

Are you ready to pin your hopes on Locke, a 25-year-old lefty who has pitched in just a dozen big league games, has posted a 1-6 record and fell twice to the lowly Houston Astros last season?

Or how about McPherson as one of the starters? He looked sharp in a few of his 10 appearances for the big club last season, but has struggled this spring, posting an 8.31 ERA in five starts.

Then there is Gomez, who made 38 starts for the Cleveland Indians over the past three seasons with a 5.18 ERA but saw that number balloon to 5.96 last season in 20 appearances. So far this spring, Gomez’s ERA is above 6.00 and he walked seven batters in his first 13 innings of work.

The senior member of this fab four — who now has a spot — is Jonathan Sanchez. At 30 years old, Sanchez made 133 major league starts and is best known for the July, 2009 no-hitter while pitching for the Giants against the Padres. Since that season, however, he is 18-25 and in three starts last season with the Rockies (all losses) had a 9.53 ERA while giving up 17 hits in just 11 innings. Through his first three spring training starts this season, Sanchez was averaging 6.1 walks per 9 innings.

That’s where it is, however; that’s where the Pirates are. Sanchez is the fourth guy, and then one of these three men will almost-certainly occupy the final spot in manager Clint Hurdle’s rotation.

No one has any true idea how the people performing in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation will pitch when the season gets underway; to speculate is nothing but a pure guess.

But, based on all that data above, would your guess be that they perform well?

The guess here is they won’t.

The problems appear very easy to pinpoint. However, arriving at a solution is something much more difficult.

The organization has made clear a disinterest with having Gerrit Cole — the top overall pick in the 2011 draft — begin the season with the big club.

So that option is out; he will be in Indianapolis.

General manager Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Sunday, “We’ve got some internal depth, but if there’s a chance externally to improve, we’ll always look for that.”

Such a thought, this late in spring, for what amounts to perhaps a short-term void, most likely is not worth it.

That said, the external option would appear to be out, as well.

The Pirates’ best plan of attack could be, and by naming Sanchez the No. 4 guy probably will be, attempting to weather the storm with two of the four guys currently in the mix until Karstens, Liriano and/or Morton get healthy.

Such an arrangement isn’t ideal, and from this view could provide a speed bump each fourth and fifth day toward the Pirates trying to get out of that 20-year rut.

With the current situation with the rotation, as with so many things that have gone wrong with the Pirates since 1992, there appears to be a much bigger problem than there is a practical answer.

Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Writer Colin Dunlap is the featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10p-2a on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at colin.dunlap@cbsradio.com.