Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Starting Rotation Candidates

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.

RatingK/9K%
Excellent10.027%
Great9.024%
Above Average8.222%
Average7.720%
Below Average7.017%
Poor 6.015%
Awful5.013%
RatingBB/9BB
Excellent1.54.5%
Great1.95.5%
Above Average2.56.5%
Average2.97.7%
Below Average3.28.0%
Poor3.58.5%
Awful4.09.0%

Gerrit Cole

GS IP ERA WHIP K K% BB BB%
32 204 3.26 1.16 196 23.2% 52 6.1%

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.

Francisco Liriano

GSIPERAWHIPKK%BBBB%
311853.301.2319224.8%698.9%

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.

Jonathon Niese

GSIPERAWHIPKK%BBBB%
281654.031.3510514.8%466.5%

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.

Ryan Vogelsong

GSIPERAWHIPKK%BBBB%
191094.381.387916.7%377.9%

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.

Jeff Locke

GSIPERAWHIPKK%BBBB%
261484.001.3511317.7%538.2%

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

Tyler Glasnow

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.

Juan Nicasio

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.

Kyle Lobstein

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.

Jameson Taillon

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.

Tri-State at the Plate Episode #74: Neal Huntington Goes to Confession

“Forgive me father, for Jason Bay is my one sin.”

On this week’s episode, Andy and Jason discuss tanking in Major League Baseball and how neither of them think it really matters… unless you’re Scott Boras and you suggest outrageous things like an “Elite Draft.” Then Andy talks about Jesse Biddle joining the Pirates, Neal Huntington baring his soul to Adam Berry about trading Jason Bay (and he goes down the regrettable rabbit hole of players in that trade), and finally he talks about the top five Pirates prospects according to MLB Pipeline. Jason then fills us in on the Indians’ prospect rankings as they pertain to Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier before suggesting you should become a host-family for a Minor League Baseball player. Finally he suggests checking out the Cleveland Plain Dealer for some interesting articles.

Tri-State at the Plate Episode #73: Who’s in Right? No, Cowgill’s in Right.

On this week’s podcast, the Big Red Machine, Bob Finkbeiner, makes his return to the podcasting world. Andy and Bob first talk about the potential baseball series in London before Andy discusses the Pirates’ jersey situation, Jung-ho Kang’s rehab, Francisco Cervelli‘s contract desires wanting to stay in Pittsburgh, and finally, Andy predicts doom for the Pirates after the departure of pitching big-wig Jim Benedict to Miami. Bob then waxes poetic about the Cleveland Indians’ 2016 Hall of Fame Class, he talks about Michael Brantley‘s rehab, Josh Tomlin‘s contract, and the enigma that is the outfield in Cleveland without Brantley. The duo finishes up answering Tweetmails about how to bring fans who have left the game back.

Tri-State at the Plate Episode #72: Bouncing Baby Boys and Baseball

Andy kicks off today’s podcast by announcing he and his wife are expecting a boy, who is sure to be left handed due to exceptional parenting. Then Andy and Jason discuss Rob Manfred announcing the heretical news that the DH may be coming to the National League. Andy then talks about the Pirates news – specifically Antonio Bastardo spurning the Buccos, the Pirates avoiding arbitration, signing Neftali Feliz, waxing poetic about Daniel Bard and Ray Searage Witchcraft, and Gregory Polanco contract talks. Jason then dives into the Indians’ offseason – specifically Mike Napoli, the Indians’ infield defense, their strength in pitching, and what the club does without Michael Brantley to start the year. This episode isn’t sponsored by North Country Brewing’s Uncle Ray Searage’s Bucco Blonde Ale… but it should be.

Tri-State at the Plate Episode #71: Major League Baseball’s Scorching Hot Stove

Tri-State of Mind Baseball is back because the Hot Stove has gotten too hot to tolerate. Jason and Andy open by discussing the madness on the free agent market that is Ben Zobrist‘s contract which has made this winter an incredibly eventful one. They then discuss the Pirates offseason moves: nontendering Pedro Alvarez, exploratory trades of Neil Walker and Mark Melancon, and how Pittsburgh fills out its first base void and starting rotation slots. The duo then looks at the Tribe’s quiet winter and how the Indians outfield has left a lot for Indians’ fans to desire so far as well as Andy’s conspiracy theory that the Indians secretly want Jason Kipnis to be an outfielder. They finish by doing what all fans do best: talk about how to spend someone else’s money.

Jung Ho Kang’s Bat is Heating Up

By Andy Burdick

At the beginning of the season, I had my doubts about Pirates’ infielder Jung Ho Kang and his ability to adjust to Major League pitching after watching some of his early season at bats. Kang’s swing is unconventional when compared with the average Major League hitter and I find it incredibly unsettling aesthetically: a high leg kick sometimes; a small leg kick others.  It’s a bias that I remember having as far back as the first times I saw Ichiro Suzuki and Craig Counsell swing their bats.

On the first hit of his career, you can see Kang abandoning the leg kick to shorten up his swing with a 1-2 count. Continue reading

Tri-State at the Plate #70: The 2015 Trade Deadline That Was

The 2015 trade deadline has come and gone so you get an hour and twenty minutes of podcast goodness today, but before Jason and Andy discuss things with the Tribe, they first discuss an appropriate age to bring your child to a baseball game. Once they finish with that discussion at the 12:45 mark, they then dive into the Cleveland Indians. Jason gives his thoughts on the Brandon Moss trade, the Carlos Carassco trade that never was, Jason Kipnis and leadership in the Indians’ clubhouse, and Andy waxes poetic about Francisco Lindor‘s recent production at the plate.  Then around the 44:00 minute mark, Andy and Chris Bradley dig into the Pirates’ trade deadline: they first hit on the Aramis Ramirez homecoming, Joe Blanton and the least sexy trade ever and the rest of the Pirates trades before finishing up talking about A.J. Burnett‘s elbow (or what’s left of it) and Jung Ho Kang’s hot streak the last month. Andy then finishes with a quick SeaWolves shout out and talks about going to meet former Pirates manager Jim Leyland this week!

Pittsburgh Pirates Trade Deadline Target: Tyson Ross 2.0

By Andy Burdick

Armchair General Manager

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

The trade deadline is quickly approaching on Friday, July 31, and everyone’s favorite hobby of armchair GM-ing is in full swing.  We’re no different here at TSM Baseball. What Pirates’ fan wouldn’t want to spend a day nearing the trade deadline in Neal Huntington’s shiny, patent leather shoes? While those shoes are probably never comfortable and leave you feeling more paranoid about your professional standing than a ‘Game of Thrones’ character, when there are no stakes to be had as an internet writer, the exercise becomes a lot more fun!

In this article I will have a seat in the hypothetical general manager’s chair and target Tyson Ross, a player that I have become obsessed with over the last three years.  I will also look at some of the pieces that I might be willing to part with that will send the Yinzer fans in Pittsburgh into a blind rage as they line up and down Federal Street, throwing IC Light cans and yelling expletives in protest.

Full Disclosure: My sexy trade deadline move for the Pirates that would have surely melted the internet would have been a move in which the Pirates traded super-prospect Tyler Glasnow in a package deal to the Rockies for short stop Troy Tulowitzki. I had been working out the players in my head that might fit on both sides, but with the recent trade of Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays, this exercise is now over.

Rest easy, internet.

Full Disclosure 2: While I mostly agree with the general fan sentiment that Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow are untouchable, no players are totally untouchable for the right price. While Ross isn’t that piece, there are players out there that would be worth dealing either of those two for. Continue reading

Tri-State at the Plate #69: Major League Baseball’s All-Star Conundrum

On this week’s podcast, Andy and Jason discuss the Major League Baseball’s All-Star problem with the Kansas City Royals as well as the new Home Run Derby rules.  Jason then talks the successes of Jason Kipnis and Corey Kluber as well as the struggles of Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez.  Andy then discusses the slow start of the Pittsburgh Pirates and how it has affected their playoff hopes in 2015, as well as Jung-ho Kang’s adjustments and Gregory Polanco‘s lack of progress. They finish up talking about the Erie SeaWolves and their less than stellar season on the field, but incredibly fan-friendly ballpark.

Tri-State at the Plate #68: The Indians and Pirates Ups and Downs

On this week’s Tri-State at the Plate, Andy and Jason talk about Edinboro Elementary student Jacob Haugh, who has raised nearly $3,000 for the Pirates charity Wins for Kids.  You can donate to the charity here and make sure to add ‘Jacob Haugh’ to your donation.

The show starts with Andy and Jason talking about the least controversial controversial topic that they can think of: the National League adopting the DH.  Andy then talks about the ups and downs of a 12-10: Starling Marte hitting for power, but not taking any walks.  The hitting not doing much of anything, but the pitching’s stellar start.  Mark Melancon‘s velocity is down and… well, there’s no real upside to that.  Jason then makes some tater tots before he chimes in to discuss Cleveland’s slow start and how the fans shouldn’t be panicking.  Yet.  The duo finish up with a SeaWolves shout out that is Dean Green heavy this week.