In most years, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be fortunate to have one breakthrough pitcher. This year, they may have found two. And neither of them were Pirates at the beginning of the year.

Neither James McDonald nor Brian Burres were highly regarded by their former teams. McDonald was traded to Pittsburgh with an outfield prospect (Andrew Lambo) for all of reliever Octavio Dotel in July.

Burres was released by his former team, the Toronto Blue Jays, before being signed by the Pirates in January. (At least we got something back from them for giving them a future star named Bautista.)

The reason they both have very good potential, despite ERAs still in the fours, is that Burres and McDonald pitch well at home. Burres’ ERA in PNC Park is 2.32, and McDonald’s is 2.55. (The latter’s “home” ERA is higher only because of his stint in Los Angeles; this factor also raises his overall ERA (4.09) above his Pirates’ ERA (3.50)).

The reason that they can both be considered breakthrough pitchers is because they have each pitched one brilliant game on the road. McDonald pitched eight innings of shutout ball in the New York Mets’ Citifield. Burress did nearly as well, allowing only one run in seven innings at Cincinnati. Now we know that they can pitch well outside of PNC park. Or at least what their ceiling is.

The last year in which the Pirates acquired two relatively promising starters was in 2008, when they acquired Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens for reliever Damasco Marte (attributing JoseTabata and Dan McCutchen to Xavier Nady). Three, if you consider the fact that Paul Maholm had something of a breakout that year.

Burres, Karstens, Maholm, McDonald and Ohlendorf (in alphabetical, not rotational, order) might be our rotation for 2011. With Dan McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, and possibly Charlie Morton waiting in the wings in reserve. Probably not Zach Duke, who seems to be regressing.

If Andrew Lambo amounts to anything, the acquisition of him and McDonald for only Dotel might be the best deal since the Cleveland Indians traded Bartolo Colon for Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore (in effect).

And Burres was a “freebie” (signing). So, too, for that matter, was Dotel.

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