The last two days we previewed the Pirates first base situation, an area that has been cloudy since Adam LaRoche, and yesterday the Pirates bullpen, on of the strengths the Pirates have had routinely under general manager Neal Huntington. Today we look at the Pirates starting rotation, which has the potential to be the deepest spot on the diamond.
One of the biggest strengths of the Pirates these last few years has been their starting pitching. Since 2013 the Pirates have the fourth best ERA (3.54), fourth best FIP (3.55), and fourth best xFIP (3.61). They’ve been a consistent staff these last three years, but there are holes the Pirates had to replace. Gone is fan favorite and bulldog type pitcher AJ Burnett, gone is ground ball machine and inconsistent pitcher Charlie Morton, and gone is JA Happ, who had a remarkable run last August and September with the club. In are left hander Jon Niese, former Pirates pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, and a potential starter in Juan Nicasio. The Pirates rotation, outside of the top two and Jeff Locke, will look different, and odds are in June and July the rotation will look even more different.
Francisco Liriano has been named the opening day starter by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, and Liriano has been one of the top left handed pitchers in the game since he originally signed with the club before the 2013 season. In his three years as a Buc, Frankie has started 86 games for 510 innings and he has produced a 3.26 ERA and a 3.23 FIP. Although he has struggled so far this spring, his track record, and the fact spring training numbers mean absolutely nothing, should show there is no concern. Frank will be Frank come April 3 against the Cardinals.
Gerrit Cole came into spring training with some rib inflammation, and he potentially won’t be ready for the opening series against the St. Louis Cardinals, but will more than likely pitch in the second series when the Pirates travel to Cincinnati. Cole last year pitched to a tune of a 2.60 ERA, which was the fifth best in the National League and seventh in all of baseball, and for his career he has a 3.07 ERA, ranking 17th in all of baseball ahead of starters such as Stephen Strasburg, Jon Lester, and Corey Kluber. He may have had a contract dispute before the season started, but when he takes the hill for the first time in 2016 that will be behind him, and another big year should be ahead.
The Pirates traded second baseman Neil Walker to the New York Mets for left handed pitcher Jon Niese. Niese is a interesting pitcher to watch mainly due to the fact he had a 3.49 ERA and a 3.69 FIP from 2012-2014 in 84 starts before struggling last year. Last season Niese had an ERA of 4.13 and a FIP of 4.41 despite having a career high 1.26 ground balls/fly balls and his second highest ground out/air out at 1.62 in his career. The big difference for Niese could be the improved defense he will have with the shift oriented Pirates. Another thing to be a little worried about Niese is how his strike out rate dropped from 18.1 percent from 2012-2014 to 14.7 percent last season. If Niese can keep his ground ball rate up and is able to return to his 2012-2014 form, with the help of shifts and pitching coach Ray Searage, the Pirates could look to have the best top three starters in the National League Central.
Jeff Locke has always been an interesting pitcher to watch. He’s a pitcher that will always wow – either in a negative or positive form – and he’s a pitcher who may never be what he was in the first half of his 2013 All Star campaign. His 3.98 ERA and 4.10 FIP from 2013 are very respectable numbers for a number five starter, but it’s the inconsistency and not knowing what Jeff Locke will show up that is the constant complain among. If Locke makes the rotation out of Spring Training, he’ll likely only be around for until June or July if top pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon show they are ready.
Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio are two guys that are battling for the final spot, as Jeff Locke is a left hander in a left hander friendly park. Vogelsong, a former Pirate, is on the downside of his career. He is no longer the 3.05 ERA and 3.68 FIP pitcher that he was in 2011 and 2012 after his return to the Majors. Vogey, however, is going to be the 4.67 ERA and 4.53 FIP type pitcher he was last season with the Giants. He signed a one year deal worth $2 million with the club in the winter, so his contract should not be a concern to the Pirates if they decide to make him the long reliever out of spring. Juan Nicasio is a pitcher who has dazzled this spring, which means nothing, has been both a starter and a reliever in his big league career, and being a reliever is where he really settled in last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 6’4″ right hander has produced a 3.74 ERA as a reliever and a 5.12 ERA as a starter in his career. However, he was a starter as a member of the Colorado Rockies, where he happened to have a 5.23 ERA pitching at Coors Field. Nicasio could either be last seasons Taijuan Walker or he could be Ray Searage’s next master piece. Either Nicasio or Vogelsong will go the pen and the other will get the nod every fifth day.
This years club features more depth than just these six pitchers. In Triple A Indianapolis, the Pirates will have a plethora of options to choose from in case of injury or lack of success. Top prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon look to be on the fast track to the ‘Burgh with likely arrival dates in June or July. Left hander Kyle Lobstein has major league experience with the Detroit Tigers and could be the first one called up if an injury occurs. Middle of the road prospects Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl look to be contributors as mid to back end of the rotation starters, both being ground ball pitchers. Left hander Steven Brault will also be spending the year in Indy as the soon to be 24 year old continues to develop and make an impact either this year or next.
This years rotation may be a step back from what it has been, but by the end of the year it should once again be a top 10 rotation in terms of ERA. Unlike many years past, there is quality depth in the minors and if there is an injury to one of the starters, or even if one of the back end arms, proves to be ineffective, they have the depth to be able to replace them without hesitation.
*Numbers via baseball-reference and fangraphs
2016 Pittsburgh Pirates Position Group Previews