First Pitch: Comparing the Pirates’ 2014 Starting Pitching Depth to 2013

Back in February I took a look at the starting pitching depth heading into the 2013 season. Throughout the off-season, I didn’t have concerns about the rotation, even though a lot of people were viewing the starters as a big question mark. I’d chalk that up to the age of Super Rotations. With big market teams possessing multiple aces, and number two starters pitching in the number four spot, it gives the belief that a team with just one ace can’t compete. The Pirates showed last year that you don’t need a Super Rotation in order to put up some of the top numbers in the league.

Just like last year, a lot of people are questioning the talent of the rotation heading into 2014. Once again, I’m not that concerned. In fact, looking at the depth article from last year, and comparing it to the depth this year, I’d say the Pirates look stronger in 2014.

Guarantees For the Rotation

Last year there were only three guarantees for the rotation. That would have been four if you included Francisco Liriano, who wasn’t officially signed when the article was written, and was expected to miss the start of the season.

2013 Guarantees

A.J. Burnett

Wandy Rodriguez

James McDonald

2014 Guarantees

Francisco Liriano

Gerrit Cole

Charlie Morton

Edinson Volquez

The Pirates don’t have Burnett returning at the moment, but the rotation heading into 2014 looks stronger than it did heading into 2013. Liriano is pretty much this year’s Burnett. Last year Burnett was coming off a great season, with questions of whether he could do it again. This year, Liriano is in the same situation.

I think I would take Gerrit Cole over Wandy Rodriguez, just because Cole started to look like an ace at the end of the 2013 season, while Rodriguez was never expected to put up ace numbers.

McDonald was only a guarantee for the rotation because of his first half in 2012. The Pirates have a similar pitcher in Jeff Locke this year, although Locke isn’t a guarantee to be in the rotation, and could start the 2014 season in Triple-A. That gives an indication of how much stronger the 2014 rotation looks compared to 2013.

You could add Liriano to the 2013 group, although it’s hard to evaluate him due to hindsight. If we’re looking at the strength of the rotation from Opening Day, then I’d say Morton/Volquez looks just as strong right now as Liriano/McDonald did pre-season last year. We know that Liriano turned into an ace, and I don’t project that for Volquez. But I’ll get to the end of 2013/beginning of 2014 comparison in a moment.

Contenders for the Rotation

The Pirates had two open spots in the rotation last year. This year they might not have any open spots, depending on the health of Wandy Rodriguez.

2013 Contenders

Francisco Liriano

Jeff Locke

Kyle McPherson

Jeff Karstens

Jonathan Sanchez

2014 Contenders

Wandy Rodriguez

Jeff Locke

I’d put more than those two in there, but right now I think Rodriguez gets the job, and if he isn’t healthy, Locke gets the open spot due to his first half in 2013. Again, Liriano was included in the above list due to his signing status, but we’ll continue to keep him in the guaranteed list.

You could add guys like Brandon Cumpton to this group, but I’d be surprised if Cumpton won a rotation spot on Opening Day without an injury. And that makes him perfect for the next section.

Early Season Depth

The funny thing about last year’s article was this comment to open the depth section:

With all of the options above, you don’t really need much early season depth. If the Pirates get to this point, we probably should be talking about who they’ll pick in the top five of the 2014 draft.

Sure enough, Jeanmar Gomez was starting by the beginning of May, and we definitely aren’t talking about a top five pick in 2014.

2013 Depth

Chris Leroux

Vin Mazzaro

Jeanmar Gomez

Andy Oliver

Justin Wilson

2014 Depth

Brandon Cumpton

Phil Irwin

Stolmy Pimentel

Jeanmar Gomez

Justin Wilson

The 2013 group is pretty weak looking, although to be fair, that’s because the rotation was up in the air. A lot of the contenders for the final two spots would have become early season depth options. Still, the 2014 group looks strong, and would also include Jeff Locke if Wandy Rodriguez is healthy for Opening Day.

Mid-Season Options

The Pirates got a big boost from Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton last year around mid-season. They won’t need the boost from Morton, but they might get another Gerrit Cole-like boost this year.

2013 Mid-Season Options

Gerrit Cole

Charlie Morton

Phil Irwin

2014 Mid-Season Options

Jameson Taillon

Kyle McPherson

Nick Kingham

Casey Sadler

Cole is slightly better than Taillon, but Taillon is good enough that he could come up and put up dominant numbers right away. They both have the potential to be top of the rotation pitchers one day, but it would be unfair for Taillon, or any pitcher, to expect the same results we saw from Cole in 2013. That said, those results are not out of the question.

McPherson was brought back on a minor league deal, and is recovering from Tommy John surgery. He should be available around July, and could be a second half option.

Last year I listed Irwin as mid-season emergency depth, although he was needed in April. Kingham and Sadler both fit the same role. They both are candidates to make it to Triple-A to start the season, although there might only be room for one of them on Opening Day. They both could also make it to Pittsburgh by the end of the season, and would be emergency depth options if he 2014 season saw the same injury issues as the 2013 season.

End of 2013 to Beginning of 2014

I don’t like the end of year/beginning of year comparisons because they give the end of the year comparisons an unfair advantage. We know that Burnett followed up his 2012 season with a strong 2013 season, while some may question Liriano. We know how Liriano worked out, but we have no clue what Volquez will become. We know how Cole performed mid-season, but we don’t know how Taillon will perform.

In comparing the end of 2013 with the beginning of 2014, you can eliminate Liriano, Cole, and Morton, since they are on both lists. There’s also the Wandy Rodriguez/Jeff Locke comparison, although it’s possible that Locke could be in the 2014 rotation if Rodriguez isn’t healthy. Either way, I’d say that’s a wash. The comparison really comes down to Burnett and Volquez, with the advantage going to Burnett.

The problem with this comparison is that it tells us nothing. It doesn’t say anything about the 2013 season as a whole. It just looks at the final rotation. It doesn’t say anything about the possibilities in 2014, or the possible end of the season rotation. It just tells us what the talent could be on Opening Day. The 2013 season ended with three guys putting up top of the rotation results (Liriano, Burnett, Cole), one guy putting up #3 starter results (Morton), and one guy who was bounced from the rotation (Locke). The 2014 season could have three top of the rotation guys (Liriano, Cole, Taillon), a #3 starter (Morton), and hopefully the final starter would end the season better than Locke did in 2013.

Comparing 2014 to 2013

At the very least, I’d say the rotation looks just as strong in 2014 as it did in 2013. If I’m in the minority in saying this, then that would be the same situation as last year.

At the start of the year, the Pirates look better off. Liriano/Cole/Morton/Volquez/Rodriguez looks better going into the 2014 season than Burnett/Rodriguez/McDonald/Liriano/??? did prior to the 2013 season.

In the middle of the season, the two teams are comparable. They both include top pitching prospects set to arrive in June. They both include strong depth that should keep the rotation productive throughout injuries. I’d also mention that I don’t see the Pirates suffering the same amount of turnover in 2014 as they did in 2013. They used a ridiculous amount of starting pitchers in the first three months of 2013, which was very unlucky.

The end of the 2014 season requires some projection, and comes with big disclaimers that injuries can happen, and performance is unexpected. The unexpected performance works both ways though, so we can’t expect players to only under-perform. If things go well, the end of 2014 could be very similar to the end of 2013.

The pitching staff was what carried the 2013 team. I think the 2014 staff is just as good or better than the 2013 group from start to finish. At this point I doubt A.J. Burnett will return, but that doesn’t mean the 2014 rotation is worse. Burnett was the only top of the rotation pitcher on Opening Day last year. Now the Pirates have Liriano and Cole. He was one of three guys with top of the rotation results at the end of 2013, and the Pirates could have Liriano, Cole, and Taillon doing the same thing this year. Burnett would be a huge luxury for the Pirates, but as far as having a rotation that is as strong as the 2013 rotation, he’s not a need.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. The second shipment of books will be arriving on Saturday and shipping out on Monday morning. The Prospect Guide is also available as an eBook. Click here to purchase the paperback version. The link also includes eBook information and discount codes.

**Prospect Rewind: How Gregory Polanco Became the Pirates’ Top Prospect

**Buster Olney listed his top ten MLB rotations this morning, and had the Pirates rated #5. So I guess I’m not alone in thinking the Pirates have a good rotation going into 2014.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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