With the dust completely settled on the big name players in the 2014-15 free agency class, the Pirates surprisingly nabbed two names on the list. Many expected them to make a big push to re-sign Francisco Liriano. Fewer thought they would succeed in locking the southpaw beyond his original two year stay, but they gave him 39,000,000 reasons to stay in Pittsburgh. The return of A.J. Burnett came completely out of the blue.
As I see the current rotation, it has a ton of depth, but it really feels like there is something missing in the middle. While ZiPS didn’t have much love for the top of the rotation, I have no beef with Liriano and Gerrit Cole highlighting the front end. We still may not have seen the best that Cole has to offer to this point in his career. The man with whom he’s most often compared to, Justin Verlander, didn’t break out fully until his third year in the league. Cole still has best-in-baseball upside. That alone is tantalizing.
I have no issue with the back end of the rotation or the depth either. As they have for the past few years, I think the Pirates can roll with anyone #6-10 in their rotation. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke appear to have the fourth and fifth spots in hand and both may come north in the rotation, depending on how quickly Charlie Morton get back on the hill. Beyond them, there is still Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Stolmy Pimentel and reclamation project du jour Clayton Richards. I’m not even getting into what this picture will look like in June once Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon have pushed beyond their Super 2 threshold.
Here is the rub. Either Burnett or Morton will assume the #3 role at some point. The A.J. everyone remembers would be an outstanding middle of the rotation guy, but the A.J. everyone remembers is not likely to take the hill at PNC Park. The best case scenario as I see it for Burnett is that he gets off to a trademark hot start before settling into an ERA just under 4 from May to July. If he gets the Bucs that far, he’s already been a success even if he also has a trademark awful August. By then, the Pirates can explore their options on the trade market and will hopefully have a healthy Morton humming on all cylinders. Once he gets rolling, Morton should be fine for the Pirates as he’s not due for another major surgery until next year. At his best, he can be a passable #3, but he’s just not the innings eater you would expect a guy who gears his game as a pitch-to-contact guy would be.
So here is what I think a Pirates rotation looks like 8 deep on the first of April and by the middle of July:
Moving forward, here is what we know. Burnett won’t be pitching for anyone, Pirates or otherwise, in 2016. We can throw him right out. Second, the Pirates are running out of options on their depth options. As I mentioned already, Locke and Worley are out of options, as is Stolmy Pimentel. Cumpton has one left and the Pirates will need to find a home for him after this season. He could be a future#4 or #5, but with the crowded back end and escalating costs in the pen, he may also find himself in relief.
This group may find themselves superseded by top prospects in the very near future as well. What fans don’t want to hear is that good prospects bust. In our How Much An MLB Prospect is Worth, we broke down the frequency that top 100 players fail to have even modest success of 3 WAR over their first six years. Of the Pirates’ pitchers knocking at the door, Taillon is slightly better than a coin flip to succeed, where Kingham is slightly worse.
Take a look back at the 2010 Altoona rotation of Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Locke and Rudy Owens who anchored the Eastern League’s best staff and were the driving force towards the championship. This group had Pirate fans dreaming of what could be, but ultimately they fell short of unreasonably high expectations. Even though the group only produced two relief pitchers and a back end starter who has failed to establish himself, they’ve fared better than they should have, even if they didn’t live up to the pie in the sky expectations established for them. Kingham and Taillon are much more highly regarded than any of those four, but the point remains. Even seemingly safe prospects in the upper minors don’t always work out. While I wouldn’t project both to succeed, I would tap at least one to make it, even if there is a reasonable chance that neither does. Likewise, I can’t project prospects like Tyler Glasnow as top of the rotation even though many already have. I see him more as a back end of the bullpen type.
Cole presents as the staff ace until 2019, but I can’t really project him on the team beyond that. Provided he’s able to stick as the fourth man, I see the Pirates picking up the option for Ground Chuck for 2017. He and Liriano should stay fixtures in the rotation that long though, both could be getting shaky. For the sake of this piece, we’ll assume Taillon is the prospect who sticks and that he’ll be a solid three, or the halfway point between his ceiling and his bust.
The 2016 rotation is looking rather solid. Due to concerns with aging, 2017 doesn’t look quite as strong, as Liriano could be slipping as a number two at age 33. By 2018, there could be a hole in the top of the rotation, especially if Glasnow follows my projections. I feel comfortable projecting a prospect into the fifth spot of the 2019-2020 rotations after Locke and Worley run out of arbitration, though I have no clue who it will be. Looking ahead, 2017 might be the time for the Pirates to make a big push for a top of the rotation type of free agent pitcher. It would give them some insurance against an aging Liriano and could help stave off a complete rebuild in the event that Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole leave after their control runs out.
Looking this far out is very difficult and to a fan, uncomfortable, especially when you take a very conservative but likely realistic look at how prospects develop. The research doesn’t allow much room for optimism when it comes to projecting pitchers. There isn’t a lot of certainty after 2017, but the good news is the Bucs have certainty in relative spades the next few seasons thanks to the Liriano contract and the Morton extension with the potential for more internal help if the prospects they have pan out.