After Wandy Rodriguez was removed from the rotation last week, the question became “who is next?” The Pirates haven’t been getting good results from their rotation this season, or their bullpen for that matter. Coming into the season, they looked good at the top three spots in the rotation, with Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton leading the way.
Morton and Cole haven’t been bad, but they haven’t been great either. Cole has a 3.76 ERA and a 3.43 xFIP. Morton has a 3.29 ERA and a 4.23 xFIP. The biggest disappointment here has been Liriano, who has a 5.06 ERA, but a 3.58 xFIP that suggests he should be better going forward. Even if everyone pitches to their advanced metrics — which would see a big improvement from Liriano, an improvement for Cole, and a decline for Morton — the Pirates wouldn’t be seeing a number one starter from this group. Coming into the season, it looked like they could have two number one starters, with Liriano and Cole.
The question marks came at the back of the rotation. Wandy Rodriguez was coming back from an injury, and that didn’t go well. Edinson Volquez was the latest reclamation project, and that hasn’t been so bad. Volquez didn’t have the greatest start Tuesday night, with two runs on four hits and five walks in five innings. However, he showed some encouraging signs, striking out six, and consistently sitting in the mid-90s, touching 98.
Volquez isn’t at any risk of losing his job right away. He’s got a 4.30 ERA and a 4.24 xFIP. Those aren’t top of the rotation numbers at all, but they’re also not numbers you just throw away. That’s especially true when the guys who could replace Volquez aren’t expected to do much better than those numbers.
I don’t think Liriano is at any risk of losing his job either. The results have been bad this year, but he’s got enough upside that the Pirates will stick with him, rather than making the switch to one of the depth options.
The situation with Volquez and Liriano would have been interesting if the Pirates had Jameson Taillon in Triple-A right now, ready to make the jump to the majors. Taillon would have represented a potential impact arm, and a guy who could put up top of the rotation numbers by the end of the year. Instead, he went down with Tommy John surgery.
I said before the season that the Pirates have strong depth. They’ve lost a bit of that depth, but they’re still strong, and the results have been good. Prior to today’s game, the Opening Day pitching staff (rotation and bullpen) had combined for a 3.90 ERA this year. That would be good enough for 18th in the majors right now. The depth options from Triple-A had combined for a 3.54 ERA in 53.1 innings. That would rank 10th in the majors. So far, the collective group from Triple-A have performed better than the Opening Day staff.
As a collective group, the Pirates have the 16th best ERA and the 20th best xFIP in baseball. That’s a big change from the 2013 season, when they ranked third and third, respectively. It was that pitching that led the Pirates to the playoffs, despite a poor offense. I believe the Pirates are struggling this year because their pitching has been playing below expectations, and not because of the similar offensive problems that they saw last year.
The Pirates should get a boost from Brandon Cumpton over Wandy Rodriguez, but that’s not the only boost they’ll need. The biggest thing that the Pirates can get, going forward, is Francisco Liriano turning his season around. The advanced metrics say he should be better than this, but he needs to improve beyond those metrics. Gerrit Cole has been good, but he was better last year, and the Pirates need him pitching more like that version — especially the pitcher who looked like an ace by the end of the season. And it’s not a bad thing if Volquez keeps pitching at his current rate, but if he starts to struggle, the Pirates might have to turn to their depth.
Neal Huntington talked about that depth on Sunday, while also discussing the state of the rotation.
“We’ve got two guys in Triple-A, one that’s coming up tomorrow, that we feel very strongly about,” Huntington said on Sunday, referring to Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke. “We’ve got to get some guys back to what they’re capable of doing and that will make the rotation better. We’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some guys not perform and all of a sudden guys that we felt pretty good about. We move one out, we’ve lost one to injury. We’ve got an opportunity for guys to step up. It’s a really challenging game, that’s what makes this so beautiful is we see stuff, we’ve seen performance in the past. Right now it’s just not aligning, but we’re showing signs that we’re getting back to that.”
I thought the pitching was better than this prior to the season. I thought the Pirates had strong depth. That combination is why I felt A.J. Burnett was a luxury, and not a need. As it turns out, the Pirates do need pitching. I don’t know if the Pirates would be much better with Burnett right now, as he has a 3.51 ERA and a 4.08 xFIP. The WAR difference between Burnett and Volquez has been less than one full win. If Burnett was here now, he’d be just another pitcher who was underperforming his numbers from previous years, and the Pirates would still be struggling.
That’s the story of the 2014 rotation so far. A lot of disappointing performances, with no one really living up to expectations. The depth has been fine, outside of the injury to Taillon, which added another blow to the rotation. But the depth doesn’t matter if the entire rotation is underperforming. I still think this is a good pitching staff, capable of being led by Liriano and Cole. Unfortunately, the Pirates might have dug a hole too deep in the first third of the season. They pretty much need Cole and Liriano to start pitching like top of the rotation guys again, and they need that to happen right away.
Links and Notes
**Prospect Watch: Tyler Glasnow Strikes Out 12; Vance Worley Strikes Out 10. I included some notes on Glasnow’s start. Also, if Worley keeps pitching like this, he could turn into a very nice depth option for the rotation.
**Phil Irwin Claimed Off Waivers By the Rangers. Not good roster management here. It’s not a huge loss, but I don’t see why the Pirates had to DFA Irwin in the first place.
**Draft Prospect Watch: Scott Blewett Feeling Fine After Final High School Start. John Dreker talks with 2014 draft prospect Scott Blewett.