Setting Up The Pittsburgh Pirates Post-Break Rotation
Major League Baseball is currently in its All-Star Break. After which, the Pittsburgh Pirates will have to set their starting rotation moving forward. This is how I would set up the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation following the All-Star Break.
At Major League Baseball’s All-Star Break the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves with a record of 46-43. This is good for third place in the National League Central Division, seven and a half games behind the first place Chicago Cubs. Despite being seven and a half games out of first place, the Pittsburgh Pirates are still firmly in the postseason hunt.
When play resumes on Friday the Pirates will find themselves just a game and a half out of the second National League Wild Card spot. That spot is currently occupied by both the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, and both teams have a more difficult second half schedule than the Pirates do. So, the Pittsburgh Pirates have an excellent shot at earning their fourth consecutive postseason birth.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to make a fourth consecutive postseason trip, their starting pitching must be better in the second half. Luckily, the rotation has the opportunity to be better. The Pirates will be getting their two best starting pitcher, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, back from the disabled list this weekend. Plus, Francisco Liriano has pitched better of late and Tyler Glasnow is now an option.
The struggles of the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation have been well documented in 2016. The Pirates enter the All-Star Break ranking 17th in the Majors in rotation ERA (4.39), 25th in walks per nine innings pitched (3.52), 26th in FIP (4.55), and 26th in xFIP (4.54). So it goes without saying that the starting rotation must improve.
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Before the Pittsburgh Pirates resume play against the Washington Nationals on Friday night they must decide how they will set their pitching rotation for the post All-Star Break stretch. The Pirates will have a few different options on what to do, and I will delve into what I would do below.
The Pirates worst starting pitcher this season has been Jon Niese. Niese started the last game before the All-Star Break on Sunday, and got crushed by the Chicago Cubs. Niese lasted just 3 2/3 innings and allowed five earned runs on eight hits.
Jon Niese’s overall season numbers are terrible. In fact, Niese is having the worst season of his career. In 18 starts this season Jon Niese has a 5.13 ERA, 5.49 FIP, and 4.39 xFIP. Niese has also allowed a National League high 20 home runs this season.
The time has come for the Pittsburgh Pirates to move on from Jon Niese. It was reported multiple times last week that the Pirates are trying to trade Jon Niese. If this does not happen by the end of this upcoming weekend, then, in my opinion, Niese needs designated for assignment. But the Pirates can not afford to allow him to start another game.
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While he has not struggled as much as Jon Niese has, Pittsburgh Pirates left-handed starting pitcher Francisco Liriano is also having the worst season of his career. This comes as a major unpleasant surprise, because during his first three seasons in Pittsburgh Liriano was as good as any left-handed starter in the National League not named Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner. In my opinion, Francisco Liriano has been the Pirates’ most disappointing player this season.
In 92 2/3 innings pitched this season Francisco Liriano has a career worst 5.31 FIP and 4.89 xFIP. His 5.15 ERA is the third highest of his career. Furthermore, Liriano is allowing 1.36 HR/9, the second highest total of his career, and he has walked more batters than any other pitcher in the National League. However, there are reasons for optimism with Liriano.
First off, he is still striking out a lot of batters. Even though it is below his career average, Francisco Liriano still has a strong 8.55 K/9 this season. Secondly, in his last four starts Liriano has a 3.90 FIP and has not allowed a home run. So maybe just maybe he is turning a corner.
Jon Niese and Francisco Liriano have been the two biggest drags on the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation all season long. They have pitched the least effectively, and the Pirates are just a combined 17-18 when these two start games. The Pirates can not afford to continue to trot each one out there every fifth day. Since Francisco Liriano has a better track record than Niese had has pitched better his last four starts, Niese is the one I would dump.
As for setting the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation moving forward after the All-Star Break, here is what I would do. On Friday I would option Chad Kuhl to Triple-A and activate Gerrit Cole off the disabled list to start Friday night in Washington D.C. I would then start Francisco Liriano on Saturday, on Sunday I would option Josh Bell to Triple-A and activate Jameson Taillon off the disabled list to start, and then on Tuesday when the Bucs return home to host the Milwaukee Brewers I would recall Tyler Glasnow from Triple-A Indianapolis to start in place of Jon Niese.
So, this would give the Pittsburgh Pirates a rotation of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow. Now you might be saying to yourself, “hey, that’s only four starters.” Well, for the first few weeks after the All-Star Break the Pirates will only need five starting pitchers.
Due to off days, the Pittsburgh Pirates will only need their fifth starter twice between now and August 23rd. The first such instances comes on Sunday July 24th, at home, against the Philadelphia Phillies, with the second being on the road against the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 14th. I would make this fifth starter Jeff Locke.
Jeff Locke’s overall numbers this season leave a lot to be desired. The much maligned left-handed pitcher has a 5.26 ERA, 4.91 FIP, 4.97 xFIP, and is averaging just 4.72 K/9. However, Jeff Locke is averaging a career best 2.85 BB/9. And he has, very quietly, been a very consistent starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jeff Locke has had three absolute train wreck starts this season. One against the San Diego Padres
in April, and then back-to-back June starts against the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. In these three starts Locke allowed 27 earned runs in just 11 innings pitched. In his other 14 starts, Jeff Locke has a 3.31 ERA.
I would leave Jeff Locke on the active roster over the course of the next month, but use him primarily as a reliever. I would have Locke make the start against the Phillies on July 24th and the Dodgers on August 14th. Then when a fifth starter is needed full time once again come August 23rd, I would move him back to the rotation. Or, if things are not going well for Jeff, leave him in the bullpen permanently and let Chad Kuhl make some more starts.
Chad Kuhl is another intriguing rotation option moving forward. In three starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season Kuhl posted a 6.08 ERA, 5.05 FIP, and a 6.13 xFIP in 13 1/3 innings pitched. Kuhl’s biggest problem was that is fastball was flat and up in the zone. He did show a plus slider and change up, though. If Chad Kuhl can return to Triple-A and work to get the life and movement back on his fastball, he might be able to help the Pirate rotation later this year, too.
When the All-Star Break ends, the Pittsburgh Pirates need to decide how they will set their starting rotation. Personally, I would go with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow. As the fifth starter is needed, I would sprinkle in Jeff Locke. In my opinion, this is the starting rotation that gives the Pittsburgh Pirates the best shot at achieving their fourth consecutive postseason birth.