For most of the season the Pittsburgh Pirates have been carried by strong pitching, especially out of the starting rotation. Almost all of their starters have performed well this year, including most of the depth options that have come up to fill in for injuries. Now we’re approaching the end of the season, and the Pirates have their best starters in the mix.
The Pirates are also pretty much a lock to make the playoffs. The only question is where they will end up. If they win the division, they will need a 3-4 man rotation for the post-season. If they make it to the Wild Card, they will need one key starter, and then three other starters if they advance.
The one starter who is a lock for the rotation, and who is the top candidate for that one key start is Francisco Liriano. He has been the Pirates ace this year, and has been huge in big game situations. Liriano would be the obvious choice for the Wild Card game, and would be the number one starter in a division series. Beyond Liriano, things get questionable.
Based on his overall numbers, A.J. Burnett would be the second best starter. However, Burnett has struggled since his second start of August, giving up a 5.75 ERA in 40.2 innings over seven starts. He’s mostly been a victim of the big inning. Here is a rundown of the worst of his starts in that period.
August 10th: One run in the first five innings. Five runs on a walk and four hits in the sixth inning, with only one run coming off Tony Watson.
August 15th: No runs through four innings. Five runs on six hits in the fifth inning. The lone out recorded was on a bunt pop-up by Lance Lynn.
August 25th: This wasn’t a bad start, but he did have the one bad inning. Burnett gave up one run in the first seven innings. In the eighth inning he gave up three runs, with one of them coming off Tony Watson. It wouldn’t have mattered in this case, since the Pirates were shutout 4-0.
September 6th: Burnett didn’t have his stuff on this day. He gave up two runs in the first, then three in the third, which ended his day.
September 11th: He threw five shutout innings, then gave up two runs in the sixth. That was largely due to back to back walks to start the inning, followed by two straight singles. In the seventh, Burnett gave up three hits and recorded one out. Three runs scored, with two scoring off Jeanmar Gomez.
In almost every start, Burnett has had an inning that has spiraled out of control. In most of those starts, he looked great until that inning. That’s not to say that he’s only had starts like this. There were two starts in August where he went seven innings, giving up one run. There was another where he pitched a complete game with one run. But the big inning trend is a concern, and it’s hard to explain. You pretty much have to go with Burnett because his stuff gives you the best chance to win. But considering the recent history, Clint Hurdle might want to have a quicker hook when things start looking bad.
Charlie Morton has been the third best starter in the rotation in the second half, although he recently suffered a minor foot injury. That shouldn’t impact him the rest of the season. He wasn’t exactly pitching well in that start before the injury. However, in his previous six starts he had a 1.74 ERA. Those were sandwiched between two bad outings against the Cardinals. I’d mention how they might not want him to go up against the Cardinals, but that’s not really an issue. The Pirates can only play the Cardinals in two scenarios. They could play them in the Wild Card if Cincinnati wins the division. I don’t see this happening, but if it did, Liriano would start, and not Morton. The only other way they’d meet is in the NLCS if one team won the Wild Card and then beat the Braves. It’s not impossible, but if that does happen, then that’s the point to have the “Should Morton pitch against St. Louis” discussion. For now, Morton seems safe in the playoff rotation.
Then there’s Gerrit Cole, who has been quietly improving in the second half. I wrote about this before his last start, and then he went out and threw seven shutout innings, with nine strikeouts. The issue with Cole is innings. If the Pirates have four starters who are capable, then they might want to use Cole as a reliever. For one, he’s a rookie in the playoffs, so his performance wouldn’t be guaranteed. He also has 166 innings this year, after throwing 132 last year. He’ll have about three starts remaining during the regular season, which should push that innings total over 180. That’s a big increase, and he probably shouldn’t be expected to pitch his best at that point.
Next is Jeff Locke, who has struggled in the second half, prior to tonight’s outing. Locke has been giving up too many walks, and unlike the start of the year he is allowing a normal amount of runners to score. That’s a problem when combined with the free passes. If Locke can turn things around and pitch more like tonight, he could be a playoff option. That would require him to keep the walks down, and have success because he’s keeping runners off the bases, rather than finding a way to avoid those runners scoring once they reach base.
Finally there is Wandy Rodriguez, who threw a sim game today. Based on normal rehab progression, his next start would normally be a five inning outing, with 80 pitches. The Pirates could easily have him make that start in the majors. However, they might also want him facing actual live competition. Since the minor league season is over, the only option would be an intrasquad game against minor leaguers during the Fall Instructional Leagues, which starts next week. At any rate, Rodriguez is getting stretched out, and should be ready for the playoffs. He’d be a great candidate for the rotation in the playoffs, since he has previous playoff experience.
The Pirates have options, although they only have one starter that makes you comfortable. After Francisco Liriano, my playoff rotation would include A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez. Burnett isn’t going to make you comfortable due to the big inning issues, but he’s the best option in the group, and he has previous playoff experience. You just hope he can avoid the big inning. Morton has been great, and is an easy choice if he continues what he’s been doing this year. If Rodriguez is healthy and stretched out, then he’s also an easy choice for me. If one of these guys can’t go, the decision would come between Locke and Cole. If Locke finishes strong, he’d look like a much better option. You don’t want to take too much from tonight’s start, since it did come against the Cubs. Locke would need to show this in his final starts before being an option. The only way I’d use Cole is if it was an emergency and two of the above starters were completely unreliable or unavailable.
The good thing is that the Pirates have plenty of options to choose from. They don’t have a roster full of Liriano’s, with a bunch of easy decisions. Then again, I don’t think many teams have four starters with zero question marks.
Who would be in your playoff rotation?
Links and Notes
**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects podcast is out, featuring special guest Rocco DeMaro: P3 Episode 19: Catching Up With Rocco DeMaro