The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.
The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team – READING
Last year the Pirates were successful in large part due to their rotation. The rotation combined for a 3.50 ERA, which ranked fifth in baseball. Their 3.57 xFIP, which tied for third, suggested that this was no fluke. The 2014 rotation will be missing A.J. Burnett, but the Pirates are also getting full seasons from Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton. The rotation does have some red flags due to injury concerns, but the Pirates have plenty of depth, which played a big role in their ability to maintain a strong rotation throughout an injury plagued season last year.
The Pirates still have a few cuts to make, so some position groups like the bullpen and the bench aren’t finalized. The rotation is finalized, which makes this group a good place to start the season previews. Although the fact that the rotation played such a huge role in the success of the 2013 Pirates is all the reason you’d need to begin any group of previews with a look at the 2014 starting staff.
Liriano is coming off a year where he looked like an ace. In 161 innings, he had a 3.02 ERA, which was supported by his 3.12 xFIP. A large portion of his success came at home. Typically, players perform better at home than on the road. In Liriano’s case, the split was extreme. He had a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park, and a 4.33 ERA on the road. The xFIP numbers were both in the 3.10-3.15 range, so this could just be a combination of luck, and PNC’s park factors helping a left-hander.
There are two concerns with Liriano heading into the 2014 season. The first concern is the fact that he has never put up two good seasons in a row. He had a 3.62 ERA in 2010, then struggled in 2011 with a 5.09 ERA. He had a 3.91 ERA in 2008, followed by a 5.80 ERA in 2009. In 2006 he had a 2.16 ERA, and he missed the 2007 season with an injury.
I’ve never really bought in to the “every other year” theory, because there’s no reason to justify that this is predictive analysis. It’s ridiculous to say that Liriano won’t have a good season this year because last year he had a good season. His performance last year will have no impact on his pitching this year.
If you look at the advanced metrics, you’ll see a trend that explains the “every other year” phenomenon. Here are the xFIP numbers for Liriano by year, along with his BB/9 ratios.
2006: 2.38 xFIP / 2.38 BB/9
2008: 4.25 / 3.79
2009: 4.48 / 4.28
2010: 2.95 / 2.72
2011: 4.52 / 5.02
2012: 4.14 / 5.00
2013: 3.12 / 3.52
When the walks were up, Liriano struggled. When they were down, he produced some of his best seasons. Liriano had decent control last year with the Pirates. He’s always been a guy who can strike out nearly a batter an inning, with the exception of the 2011 season, when the strikeouts were down. PNC Park will help reduce his home runs, as will the focus on generating ground balls. As long as Liriano maintains his solid control numbers, he should have another good season.
The second concern with Liriano is his tendency to be injury prone. This is more concerning than the “every other year” issue, because it does provide some sort of predictive analysis. When healthy, Liriano should do well in the rotation. But expecting Liriano to make 32-33 starts and pitch 200 innings is a stretch. Last year he threw 182.2 innings between the minors and the majors. In 2010 he threw 191.2 innings. In 2008 he went 199.1 innings between all levels. In 2005 he went 191.1 innings between all levels. Liriano has been playing full-season ball for ten years now, and in that time he has only gone over 160 innings four times.
There’s not much the Pirates can do about this, except to be prepared with a lot of depth. When healthy, I expect Liriano to do very well.
Steamer: 192 IP, 3.41 FIP
Oliver: 164 IP, 3.72 FIP
ZiPS: 161 IP, 3.12 FIP
Charlie Morton returned from Tommy John surgery in the second half of the 2013 season, and by the end of the year he was pitching like a strong middle of the rotation starter. However, his history raises questions as to whether he can repeat that success. With most players, history is a good thing to look at when determining the future possibilities for a pitcher. In Morton’s case, you can throw all of that history out the window.
The Charlie Morton today and the Charlie Morton before the 2011 season are two different pitchers. The Pirates overhauled Morton’s game in 2011, making him a sinkerball pitcher with a new delivery. The result was a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 innings. However, that success was short-lived.
Morton struggled in 2012, then went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. His struggles were tied to the injury, since he couldn’t throw his sinker or his curveball without pain, thus eliminating his two best pitches. Since the switch in 2011, Morton has been a strong pitcher when he is healthy.
Health would be the big concern going forward with Morton. However, he did combine for 156.2 innings last year between all levels, and the Pirates have been taking steps with his mechanics to avoid stress on his arm. You could probably pencil him in for at least 160 innings, with anything else being a bonus. Personally, I think he will exceed that 160 inning mark this year. As for the results, most of the projection systems factor in his entire body of work. It’s not the most scientific approach to eliminate everything and just point to last year, but in Morton’s case, I think the circumstances warrant that type of approach.
Steamer: 182 IP, 3.79 FIP
Oliver: 130 IP, 4.10 FIP
ZiPS: 121.1 IP, 4.06 FIP
Rodriguez has looked good in his time with the Pirates. In 2012 he had a 3.72 ERA in 75 innings after the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh. In 2013 he had a 3.59 ERA before the injury that shut him down for the year. His advanced metrics were both worse than his ERA, although as a lefty, PNC Park probably helped him out-perform those metrics.
The biggest question coming into the year was whether Rodriguez would be healthy. He tried returning last year, but had setbacks each time. All throughout Spring Training he looked good, and said that he was healthy after each start. After his last start, Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle said that Rodriguez still isn’t where he was before the injury.
“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s competitive,” Hurdle said. “He’s not where he can get. But it’s good to see him healthy, it’s good to see him taking the ball.”
It’s possible that Rodriguez could continue to improve as the season goes on and he gets back to pitching. He looked good enough in Spring Training that he could probably go out and put up league average numbers at the start of the year. He’ll still get help as a lefty in PNC Park. Rodriguez is a wild card, but he’s not the huge question mark he was coming into camp.
Steamer: 144 IP, 3.86 FIP
Oliver: 142 IP, 4.09 FIP
ZiPS: 119 IP, 3.85 FIP
If I’m listing these pitchers based on their expected production, and not based on the Opening Day rotation order, then Cole would be at least number two on the list. He was exceptional during his rookie season, looking like an ace by the end of the year. He had a 3.22 ERA, which was supported by a 3.14 xFIP. He also threw over 190 innings when you include the playoffs and the minor leagues. There’s a good chance that Cole could throw 200 innings this year, while putting up numbers that would rank him among the top 30 starters in the game.
Last year, Cole relied heavily on his fastball when he first arrived in the majors, throwing the pitch about 80% of the time. Eventually he started moving to his slider, which is his best out-pitch. Once he incorporated the slider more often, the results started to come and he started looking like an ace. He’s been working on a slurve, which would give him more separation from his upper 90s fastball and his upper 80s to low 90s slider and changeup.
As long as Cole goes with the slider as his primary out pitch, he should be great. The curveball can help, since it will give him another look, and a pitch that isn’t in the 88-101 MPH range. Cole is still young, and still improving his game — whether that’s adding new pitches or making his current pitches more effective. He was already looking like a future ace in his rookie season, and if he continues to improve, the results could be scary.
Steamer: 182 IP, 3.62 FIP
Oliver: 149 IP, 4.05 FIP
ZiPS: 163 IP, 3.53 FIP
The biggest question mark in the rotation is Edinson Volquez. He’s the latest reclamation project for the Pirates, although the early results don’t look promising. I wrote about Volquez extensively here. The summary is that his curveball and changeup look good, but the mechanical adjustments and his fastball command lack consistency at the moment. Some innings he’ll look great, and some innings he will struggle.
The Pirates are going with Volquez in the rotation, much to the dismay of Pirates fans. I’m a little more optimistic on Volquez than most. I’ve liked the secondary stuff, and I trust the Pirates’ pitching coaches to do a good job and get his mechanics to a consistent point. I don’t know if Volquez will be the next Liriano, but I do think he will be capable of producing league average numbers. It seems that the projection systems agree.
Obviously the uncertainty makes Volquez the biggest red flag in the rotation. If people were taking bets on where the depth would be used first, I’m sure almost everyone would predict Volquez. I’d expect the Pirates to give him two months, or a month if his results are Jonathan Sanchez-esque. But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that Volquez will be a disaster.
Steamer: 48 IP, 4.12 FIP
Oliver: 180 IP, 4.36 FIP
ZiPS: 164.2 IP, 4.15 FIP
The Pirates have the makings of a talented rotation, but they also have some injury concerns. Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez all have a poor injury history. Edinson Volquez raises red flags due to his recent struggles. It’s very likely that the Pirates will need to turn to their rotation depth this year, possibly more than normal.
Last year the Pirates’ starters pitched 925 innings. If you average the above innings projections for all three projection systems, you get about 750 innings from the above five pitchers. That means the Pirates will need to find 175 innings from their depth, or about a full season. Fortunately they have enough options that they should be able to get that amount, and more if necessary.
Brandon Cumpton would be the top option as far as early-season depth. He looked good in Spring Training, and had a lot of success last year in his brief time in the majors as a depth option. Cumpton isn’t as good as his 2013 results would indicate, but he does profile as a guy who could be a back of the rotation starter in the majors.
Jeff Locke had a great first half last year, then a horrible second half. He wasn’t as good as the first half, but he also wasn’t as bad as the second half. I view Locke as a guy with strong number four starter upside, which is about the mid-point between his two halves last year. I think Cumpton has jumped him on the depth chart, especially with Locke dealing with an injury this Spring, which prevented him from getting fully stretched out. However, he could make it back to the majors for another shot at the rotation this year.
Phil Irwin is another early-season depth option, although he needs to show that he is healthy first. Irwin has been starting at Pirate City and getting stretched out, and looks to be ready for the start of the season. He’s another guy with back of the rotation potential, but the Pirates would need a lot to go wrong in the first month of the season to go to him.
The biggest depth option this year is Jameson Taillon. The top pitching prospect was expected to arrive by mid-season, much like Gerrit Cole did last year. However, an elbow injury has him sidelined for a month, and he will go on Monday for a second opinion. This could push back his debut, although he should pick up the bulk of the necessary innings, even if he doesn’t arrive in mid-June.
Of course the Pirates have Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel at the major league level, and both pitchers could make early season starts, before the team would have to turn to Triple-A. They also have Casey Sadler in Triple-A. Sadler is a good sinkerball pitcher, and those guys tend to have success in Pittsburgh with the defensive shifts and a strong infield defense. Nick Kingham will start the year in Altoona, but could make the jump to Pittsburgh by the end of the season, much like Cumpton and Locke have done in the past.
The depth options above give the Pirates eight pitchers who can start in the majors, beyond the Opening Day rotation. That doesn’t include Kyle McPherson, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and could return in the second half. It doesn’t include the deep emergency options like Jay Jackson or Vance Worley, who currently profile as Indianapolis rotation depth with Taillon out and Locke not fully stretched out. But if the Pirates get to Worley and Jackson, they probably won’t be contending this year. Then again, you could have said the same thing about Kris Johnson before the 2013 season.
The Pirates maintained a successful rotation in 2013 in large part because of the deep rotation depth that they had. It looks like they’ll have similar depth this year, which is good due to the red flags in the Opening Day rotation.