By Andy Burdick
The primary area of concern for the Pirates this off-season had to be their starting pitching. A.J. Burnett retired and J.A. Happ played the best baseball of his career down the stretch and priced himself out of Pittsburgh. While rotation stalwarts Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are returning to their respective spots at the top of the rotation, the 3-5 slots do not look nearly as inspiring.
The Pirates addressed one of those rotation spots by trading second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets for lefty Jonathon Niese. After trading Charlie Morton and his $8 million contract to the Phillies, the Pirates had another rotation spot left to fill and did so by signing 38 year old righty Ryan Vogelsong to a one-year deal. This leaves the fifth spot presumably for Jeff Locke.
If you’re keeping score at home, the Pirates rotation, as it stands, looks like this:
1. Gerrit Cole
2. Francisco Liriano
3. Jon Niese
4. Ryan Vogelsong
5. Jeff Locke
Now I wouldn’t recommend getting a tattoo of that rotation on your shoulder blade just yet because a lot can – and probably should – happen to the Pirates’ rotation between now and Opening Day. However, it looks like on Opening Day, these will be the five arms that will walk to the mound for the Pirates. In this article, each player projected to be in the Pirates’ rotation to start the year has a Steamer projection for their 2016 numbers underneath their name.
For a point of reference, the following charts are how Fangraphs would evaluate strikeout and walk rates for pitchers. While these are subject to change year-to-year based on league averages, they do give you an idea of where a players’ numbers and rates rank. When you look at the Steamer projections, keep these numbers in mind as a general evaluation for pitcher productivity – or lack thereof.
After cracking the 200 inning plateau for the first time in his career last season, Cole demonstrated top of the rotation dominance Pirates fans have desperately wanted since he was called up. With above average strikeout and walk rates and another 200 inning season projected, Cole is going to be looked upon again to be the ace that the Pirates need to front their rotation.
An example of how the risks the Pirates organization takes can pay off, Liriano is projected to continue his recent string of productive seasons. His wipe-out slider should again drive another above-average strikeout rate, but his control issues limit his upside as a starter and prompt his poor walk rate. Also, given that last season was only the second time in his career that he cracked the 180 inning mark in the Majors, a projection of him repeating that seems somewhat optimistic.
Niese is where the Pirates need to make hay. On the surface, his 2016 projections are less than inspiring. However, going into 2014 Steamer projected starter Edinson Volquez to post an 11-12 record with a 4.43 ERA, 7.23 K/9, and 4.12 BB/9. Volquez ended the year 13-7 with a 3.04 ERA, 6.54 K/9, and 3.32 BB/9.
While Niese’s strike out rate has plummeted the past few seasons, he has dealt with rotator cuff injuries since 2013, the year following his 2012 breakout. He fastball velocity dipped nearly two miles an hour in 2014, but has been on a slowly increasing trajectory since. Presumably if the Pirates are trading for him, the medicals are checking out to their satisfaction.
Based on Pittsburgh’s productive track record with pitchers like Volquez, Liriano, Morton, et. al., I feel that Niese will be put in a situation in which his numbers can improve as well. He’s already a groundball pitcher, with a career groundball rate of 50% and coming off of a season in which he posted the highest groundball rate of his career at 54.5%. The Pirates are one of the shift-heaviest teams in baseball due to their organizational philosophy of preaching groundballs. Pitchers in the Pirates rotation also benefit from having one of the best pitch framers in the game, Francisco Cervelli, behind the plate. If Niese’s shoulder is truly healthy, a modest increase in his K% could be in the cards as well.
Niese has the potential to be a number three starter that the Pirates desperately need after A.J. Burnett’s retirement if his health and strikeout rate can maintain throughout the season.
The Pirates will be counting on Vogelsong to eat some innings this season as evidenced by a $2 million base salary and $3.1 million in incentives. According to ESPN, Vogelsong’s bonuses are structured as follows:
Vogelsong would receive $100,000 each for 10, 12 and 14 starts under Friday’s agreement and can earn $2.8 million under a points system that calls for three points for each start, two for each relief appearance of two innings or more or game finished, and one for each relief appearance less than two innings.
He would get $150,000 each for 48 and 52; $200,000 apiece for 56 and 60; $225,000 each for 64 and 68; $250,000 apiece for 72, 76, 80 and 84; and $275,000 each for 88 and 90.
Vogelsong will turn 39 this season and won’t be looked at for much more than an ability to provide the Pirates rotation with some consistent innings as a starter. If he can’t, the Pirates could look to move him to the bullpen or cut ties with the aging righty depending on the performance of his replacements.
Locke is a one-time All-Star as the first half of his 2013 season produced some outstanding numbers. That being said, every one of Locke’s seasons is a Jekyll and Hyde story. At this point, Locke is what he is: a back-end of the rotation starter. He gets groundballs with a combination of a below-average fastball, changeup, and curveball, but all of the good that he is able to produce is offset by a below-average strikeout rate and below-average walk rate.
Locke is a player the Pirates can count on in the fifth spot, but could see his tenure in Pittsburgh end if the organization has some arms develop in 2016.
Other Rotation Options
The crown jewel in the Pirates farm system, Glasnow is the type of pitcher fans pay money to walk through gates and see. While general manager Neal Huntington has stated that 100 innings combined between Double and Triple-A haven’t prepared Glasnow for the Majors, he should be ready to join the rotation at some point this summer if the Pirates are contending for a playoff spot.
Glasnow combines an explosive 80-grade fastball with a heavy curve and changeup. He needs to work on getting ahead of hitters to help lower his walk rate, but at some point in 2016 he should be ready to help the Pirates’ rotation.
Nicasio’s fastball benefited from a move primarily to the bullpen last year and peaked at an average fastball velocity of 95 MPH. However, Huntington has stated that they will stretch him out as a starter this spring in order to provide manager Clint Hurdle some flexibility with the arms that he has on his roster.
Nicasio was signed to a one year, $3 million deal, so he will start the season serving a role somewhere on Pittsburgh’s roster.
With two options remaining, Lobstein will more-than-likely start the season in Triple-A Indianapolis and shuttle back and forth as needed. While he features a repertoire similar to a Swiss Army Knife, everything plays off of a fastball-sinker combination that sits in the mid 80s. His upside is that of Jeff Locke: a guy who could play as a back-end of the rotation starter.
Pirates fans would be thrilled to see a healthy Jameson Taillon after the hard throwing righty missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. During his recovery in 2015, he suffered a hernia and had to shut his season down before it even got started. Taillon throws a plus fastball that he combines with a heavy curveball and a below-average changeup that sits around 90 MPH and flattens out too much to be a consistent weapon.
If healthy, Taillon could provide an electric environment for Pirates fans who have been eagerly waiting for him to make his Major League debut.