The Pirates have a pitching problem

Starting pitching is not supposed to be a problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it has been this season. It showed up again in the team’s 6-0 loss to the Washington Nationals Saturday.

Cole isn’t the same

Gerrit Cole allowed five runs in four innings against the Nationals in his first start back from a monthlong trip to the disabled list.

While his season ERA sits at 3.11, there are signs that Cole hasn’t been himself. He is on pace for a career-high 1.37 WHIP, career-high 7 percent walk rate and career-low 19 percent strikeout rate.

A key in Cole’s development in recent seasons had been the improved performance of his fastball. In each of the previous two seasons, he lowered the batting average and OPS against the pitch.

However, this season Cole’s fastball has been susceptible, as opposing hitters are hitting .289 in at-bats that end with the pitch. The 11 percent miss rate against Cole’s fastball by opposing hitters this season is on pace to be the lowest in his career.

It’s a long-term problem

Since July 1, the Pirates have gotten just two quality starts in 12 games. In that span, none of their starters has recorded an out after the sixth inning.

Inconsistency and injuries have been problems for the team this year. In part due to Cole’s injury, the team has used 11 different starters this season. They used only eight in both 2014 and 2015.

Depth after Cole in the rotation has been arguably the team’s biggest concern. Aside from Cole, the Pirates have only one starter with at least five starts and an ERA plus of 100 or better: Jameson Taillon (107).

What options do they have?

The trade deadline is Aug. 1, and the Pirates may consider adding to the rotation at some point before then. Since the Padres have already shipped Drew Pomeranz to the Red Sox, the Pirates’ options may be limited.

The answer could be as simple as getting Jameson Taillon back healthy, along with a return to form by Francisco Liriano. Liriano’s problem has been a 14 percent walk rate, which is on pace for a career high.

Without adding pieces, the Pirates could rely on Taillon and fellow top prospect Tyler Glasnow to get them back on track.

Without a bounce-back from their starting rotation, the Pirates may not get back to the playoffs.

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