The Pittsburgh Pirates have had back-to-back appearances in the MLB postseason, something the organization hadn’t done since making it three straight appearances from 1990-92. If the team hopes to equal the early 1990s streak, or even extend it into further seasons, then the Pirates’ brain trust will need to answer questions revolving around who will be in their starting rotation for 2015.
Pittsburgh has a bevy of talented, young arms coming up through the system, with some hurlers already making their way to the majors. The Pirates will need to plug some holes during the 2015 season to bridge the gap for the influx of arms that are not quite here, yet. Pittsburgh will try and fill those holes with experienced, if not capable, pitchers.
One question that Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle will contend with as the 2015 season begins is – who will be the opening day starter? Hurdle has two excellent options to choose from. The first option that the Bucs’ manager could go with is left-hander Francisco Liriano, who recently signed a three-year, $39 million deal to remain in the Steel City.
He was the leader of the Pirates staff in 2013, when Pittsburgh made it back to the postseason for the first time since 1992. The talented 31-year-old finished 2013 with a 16-8 record and a 3.02 ERA, which was a revelation following four-straight disappointing seasons. A change of scenery to the National League appeared to be all he needed.
Liriano followed up 2013 with what appeared to be a pedestrian 2014. The lefty finished 7-10 with a respectable 3.38 ERA. He was the victim of several low-scoring games by the Pirates offense, and a rather high batting average on balls in play (BABPIP) of .280.
Despite the BABIP, Liriano’s stuff continues to allow him to get out of jams. He threw his devastating slider a total of 843 times in 2014, resulting in an opponents’ batting average against of .170. The slider sits in the mid-80s with a sharp, late break that burrows in on the back foot of right-handed hitters or breaks away from lefties.
Liriano also had a great deal of success with his changeup during 2014. He threw the pitch 693 times, with opponents hitting .173. Liriano’s changeup is also thrown in the mid-80s, but unlike the sharp, late break, this pitch breaks away from right-handers while disappearing in on lefties.
Major League hitters did fair better against Liriano’s fastball, which he throws in the low-90s but can touch 96 MPH. The pitch was hit to the tune of .294.
When throwing well, Liriano establishes the strike zone with his fastball before finishing hitters off with either his slider, which is his preferred pitch, or changeup. He was extremely successful finishing hitters off last season, recording a 9.4 strikeout-per-nine-innings.
The main concern that Hurdle may have with Liriano is that he has yet to throw more than 162 innings with the Pirates. Injuries have limited his appearances over the first two seasons in Pittsburgh, and the Pirates’ skipper must be wary of fatiguing his prized left-hander.
With concerns about Liriano’s innings possibly flooding the brains of the Pirates’ brain trust, Hurdle does have another option as the Opening Day starter.
Since being the No. 1 pick of the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft, 24-year-old Gerrit Cole has worked his way quickly through the Pirates minor league system, making his debut during the 2013 season. Cole made such an impact on Pittsburgh management that he was tabbed to make two starts during the Pirates’ Divisional Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
When you see Cole there isn’t much not to like. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds while possessing a fastball that can reach triple digits. When the Pirates drafted Cole first overall, the organization envisioned an Opening Day starter for years to come.
The question, is Cole ready to assume the mantle?
While he has always possessed electric stuff – high-90s heater, low-90s slider, mid-80s curveball and mid-80s changeup – there were questions on whether or not the right-handed hurler missed enough bats to truly be considered a potential front-line ace. Cole may have started to answer that question with his 2014 performance.
Upon his arrival during the 2013 season, it appeared that Cole would try to be economical with his pitch counts, throwing more to contact. This was evidenced by a rather low strike-out-per-nine-innings ratio of 7.67. Cole still experienced success, finishing with a 10-7 record and 3.22 ERA, but the dominance that many had hoped for wasn’t quite there.
Something clicked for Cole during the 2014 season. Despite injuries that limited him to just 138 innings, Cole finished 11-5 with a 3.65 ERA and 138 strikeouts. His strike-out-per-nine-innings mark soared to 9.0. Cole was able to have hitters chase his slider more because he learned to not throw it in the zone all the time, but make it appear as a strike while finishing off out of the zone. When he needed to, he was also able to reach back and blow his upper-90s heater past opposing hitters.
Like Liriano, the thing marking concerns for the Pirates’ front office is Cole’s lack of innings. He should be able to handle the load, making him the best option to be the Pirates’ Opening Day starter.
While Hurdle could flip-flop on Cole or Liriano as filling the one or two spot in the rotation, the third spot belongs to MLB journeyman A.J. Burnett. The 38-year-old right-hander makes his return to Pittsburgh after spending one season in Philadelphia. Burnett should be able to provide guidance and leadership to the Bucs’ rotation while also eating up some innings and racking up strikeouts.
Over the course of his National League career (10 seasons), Burnett has averaged 8.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings with a respectable 3.77 ERA. He first came to the Pirates as a free-agent in 2012, finishing 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA. He totaled 180 strikeouts in 202.1 innings pitched.
While he finished six games above .500 during the 2012 season, 2013 may have been his best season with the Pirates. Unfortunately his win-loss record did not display that idea as Burnett finished 2013 with a 10-11 record and a 3.30 ERA. He totaled 209 strikeouts in just 191 innings, which led to a career-best 9.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings.
Burnett uses a low-90s fastball with a devastating low-80s knuckle-curveball to get hitters out. When pressed he will use a low-90s sinker and upper-80s changeup to throw hitters off their games. His bread-and-butter pitch, though, is the knuckle-curveball.
With the first three slots of the rotation easy to figure out, it is the final two that have Pirates fans wondering who will be the guys.
With just two spots available, there are six potential players that could find their way into filling the positions. Four of the players are known commodities while the final two options are potential young guns that are more dark horse this year, but could breakthrough in 2015.
One option is 27-year-old left-hander Jeff Locke, who was a member of the National League All-Star team in 2013 after posting a 10-7 record with a 3.52 ERA. There has always been promise with Locke, who was acquired from the Braves as part of the Nate McLouth trade. Unfortunately for Locke, he can’t seem to stay out of his own way as walks-per-nine-inning totals constantly increase his pitch counts and put him into dangerous situations. Even during his all-star season of 2013, Locke’s walks-per-nine-innings ratio was 4.5.
Another concern for Locke has been the decrease in his strikeout-per-nine-innings. During 2012, the lefty had a quick cup of coffee with the Pirates, impressing with an 8.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark. But 2013 saw the mark dip to 6.8 and then 6.1 during 2014. With Locke’s control struggles he has never managed to throw more than 166.1 innings at the major league level.
Another option for two of the remaining spots is 31-year-old Charlie Morton, who also came to the Pirates via the McLouth trade. Morton has always possessed great stuff, but like Locke, has struggled to control his pitches. Add in the fact that he is coming off hip surgery and Morton may not even be ready to go at the start of the 2015 season.
During his six seasons with the Pirates, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound righty has undergone a transformation that turned him from a strikeout pitcher to a guy Pirates’ announcer Greg Brown calls “Ground Chuck.” Morton began to pattern himself after former Toronto and Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay, who was extremely effective throwing a heavy two-seam fastball.
Morton has incorporated the sinker into his repertoire and has seen his groundball rate rise to above 55 percent in each of the last four seasons. He also started putting hitters away at a higher rate during the 2014 season, averaging 7.21 strikeouts-per-nine-innings.
Vance Worley, 27, was a savior for the Pirates during the 2014 season. With injuries to Liriano, Cole and Morton; Worley was able to start 18 games for Pittsburgh, finishing 8-4 with an impressive 2.85 ERA.
Worley uses a low-90s two-seam fastball and a mid-80s cutter to have hitters beat the ball into the ground. His third pitch, a changeup, continues to be a work in progress.
The 2014 season was not the first time that Worley has found success. During 2011, Worley burst onto the scene with Philadelphia, finishing 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA.
Worley is another pitcher that has never thrown more than 133 innings at the MLB level.
The Pirates could choose the steady, if not unspectacular, Brandon Cumpton to fill one of the roles. The 26-year-old right-hander has seen 15 starts at the MLB level over the past two seasons for Pittsburgh.
During the 2013 season, Cumpton started five games, finishing 2-1 with a 2.50 ERA, a small sample size to say the least. The 2014 season saw him pick up 10 starts while other Pittsburgh starters healed. He was not as successful, finishing 3-4 with a 4.89 ERA.
Cumpton is not going to overpower anyone at the MLB level (6.5 strikeout-per-nine-innings rate), although he can touch the mid-90s with his fastball. Instead, he relies on heavy movement that causes opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground. Cumpton also possesses an average slider that can force hitters into weak groundballs.
Ideally the final two options that the Pirates’ front office would like are former No. 2 pick overall Jameson Taillon and Stolmy Pimentel. Both can be considered darkhorses for the final two spots, mostly because of injuries and a lack of starts at the MLB level, which will more than likely prevent either pitcher from starting the 2015 season in the rotation, although both could receive starts come midseason.
Pimentel, 25, who came over in the deal that sent Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, possesses an explosive fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can reach the upper-90s when needed. He has a hard-breaking slider as well, but his third pitch, a changeup, is a work in progress.
Last season, Pimentel spent the year working out of the Pirates’ bullpen because he was out of options. During his 20 appearances, Pimentel averaged an impressive 10.5 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. He does struggle with control at times, as evidenced by his 4.4 walks-per-nine-innings.
Pimentel’s electric stuff is something fans would love to see from a starting pitcher, but his lack of innings and his high walk rate may force him back to the bullpen, which could be a role his succeeds in.
Taillon is the player that Pirate fans have been clamoring for since he was drafted and then threw well against Team USA during the World Baseball Classic in 2013.
Unfortunately injury will more-than-likely prevent Taillon for breaking camp as a member of the 2015 Pirates’ rotation. He underwent Tommy John surgery on April 9, 2014, thus missing the entire season. Despite the loss of an entire season, Taillon was positive, which he discussed in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article written by Bill Brink.
“My elbow feels great,” said Taillon. “Body feels great. It’s a year just to work out and get stronger. My legs have gotten a lot stronger. Really, my whole body has gotten stronger.”
If Taillon has truly gotten stronger, it could be a scary proposition for opposing minor league hitters and future MLB hitters he will face. Already possessing a fastball that can touch triple digits, he also uses a curveball that scouts have said could be a plus pitch. As with every young pitcher, the 23 year old is still working on his changeup and a slider.
During his three seasons in the minors for Pittsburgh, Taillon has compiled a 16-21 record with a 3.72 ERA. While the numbers seem pedestrian, he has managed to average 8.4 strikeouts-per-nine-innings, which shows promise for the future.
After looking at the potential starting pitchers that the Pirates have for the 2015 season, it would be wise to speculate that the rotation will look something like; Liriano, Cole, Burnett, Locke and Worley, with Morton ready to take Locke or Worley’s spot if deemed healthy enough to do so.
Pimentel and Taillon will continue to be outside contenders, with Pimentel getting the first option to start as Taillon continues to work his way back after Tommy John.
All the pitchers discussed in the article should be ready to go as inning concerns and fatigue could play a role in the Pirates using a multitude of starters during 2015.