First Pitch: Five Hundred

On March 25th, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Vance Worley from the Minnesota Twins for cash considerations. That was when the Pirates were counting on Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to lead the rotation. It was when Wandy Rodriguez showed some promise by staying healthy and pitching fairly well in Spring Training. It was when many were projecting the Edinson Volquez experiment would end in failure. It was before Jameson Taillon had Tommy John surgery.

On Sunday, Vance Worley will get the chance to start for the Pirates, and put them above .500 for the first time since April 14th, which was just over two months ago.

If you would have predicted that back in March, no one would have believed you. And the doomsday scenarios would be out in full force if you would have predicted the following:

**Gerrit Cole would be pitching more like a strong number three starter than a top of the rotation guy, and would be on the disabled list in June.

**Francisco Liriano would be pitching like a number four or five starter, and would also be on the DL.

**Wandy Rodriguez would implode early.

**Jameson Taillon would go down for the year with Tommy John surgery.

**Volquez would have some of the best numbers in the rotation.

**The mid-June rotation would include Volquez, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, and Worley.

Baseball is a funny game. Tons of words were written over the off-season, looking at the pitching staff from every different angle. Will the Pirates bring back Burnett? Should they bring back Burnett? Which reclamation project would be best? Will Ray Searage be able to fix Edinson Volquez? Can Francisco Liriano have two good years in a row? Will Charlie Morton stay healthy? When will Jameson Taillon be up? Will Wandy Rodriguez be the same after returning from his injury?

The off-season questions always pose a situation where the team can’t possibly contend if the question is answered with a negative. And yet here we are in mid-June, with the rotation in disaster mode, and the Pirates have a chance to go above .500 tomorrow, with one of the worst possible scenarios you could have thought up in Spring Training.

I’m not giving any credit to anyone for where the Pirates are right now. I’m not going to criticize if you didn’t think they’d get here after their poor start to the season. On paper, it didn’t look like they would get here. It doesn’t look like they’ll stay here either with the current rotation.

Whether they will stay here is a totally different topic. I’d dig into it with stats and analysis, but the simple approach is that I don’t think it’s probable that this current rotation will keep the Pirates at .500 or better. But let’s set aside the numbers for a moment, and keep with this “baseball is a funny game” approach.

One thing the Pirates had going for them last year was the ability to keep winning, no matter what happened. They kept winning no matter who went down with an injury. They kept winning no matter who was called up. Maybe that’s what is going on with this team. They were eight games under .500 on May 20th. Since then, they’ve gone 16-8, despite losing Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano (who was more of a loss in name than in stats), and a red-hot Neil Walker. Those players were replaced with Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, and Gregory Polanco. Only one of those players was expected to do well (although I’d say there aren’t as many expectations for Worley, just curiosity over what the Pirates have with him).

I wish I could sum this all up by saying that the Pirates will continue with this trend of staying in the race, no matter what is thrown at them. I could point out the numbers that say they probably won’t continue to do well with the current rotation, but as we’ve seen, the only thing that matters is the on-field performance. For now, I’ll just be watching Vance Worley pitching for the Pirates tomorrow, aiming to put them above .500 and possibly within two games of the Wild Card. I’ll be wondering whether the Pirates might have found themselves a pitcher for the next four seasons. And if they win tomorrow, I’ll be marveling at how the Pirates will have climbed above .500 with this rotation, defying all odds and expectations in the process.

Links and Notes

**SALEGet 24% Off the 2014 Prospect Guide and Other Pirates Prospects Gear

**2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker

**Prospect Watch: Reese McGuire Hits First Career Homer, Taylor Gushue Homers Again

**Pirates 23rd Round Pick Trying to Get Out of His Commitment to Tulane

**Vance Worley to Start For the Pirates on Sunday

**Pirates Announce Nine Draft Signings, Including Four New Names

**Prospect Highlights: Alen Hanson Triple, Strikeout By Nick Kingham in AAA Debut

**Minor League Schedule: Luis Heredia Goes Sunday Afternoon For West Virginia

Tim Williams

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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  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    What is really crazy, is this team could be 10 games over .500 by July 5th. It’s not a long shot. They are coming into a very soft part of the schedule. One left with the Marlins, Reds 3, Cubs 3, Rays 3, Mets 4, D’backs 3, and the Phillips for 3 over 4th of July weekend. 20 games. 15-5 is what they need.

    • Lee Young

      I always hate the ‘schedule coming up is soft’ comments.

      Because it never ends up being soft.

      • bucsws2014

        I’m with you. Every year somebody says that and they’re dead wrong. Especially when the Padres are in town. They love PNC for some reason.

        The next four day stretch of “soft schedule” comprises Alvarez, Cueto, Simon and Bailey. Other than Simon, those guys have had significant success against the Bucs lately (discounting the WC game).

      • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

        You’re right. How about ‘they are heading into 5 series over 20 games against teams they are more talented than and are executing better than.’ You have to admit the feel of the lineup right now is good. It’s hitting 1 through 8. It’s feels deep. Even without Walker in it. Even without Alverz hitting. Yes the starting pitching isn’t in great shape, but the Reds by far will be the best offensive they face for 20 games and the Marlin are probably next. All the talk has been about getting back to .500. We are there. The monkey is off the back. Let’s just go play baseball like we can.

  • Scott Kliesen

    Way to throw a bucket of ice water on the enthusiasm of Pirates fans, Tim. The team claws it’s way back to .500 after playing inspired ball for the last couple weeks, and you choose to write about the impending doom and gloom based on the current rotation? How about writing about the impending offensive explosion w Polanco, Marte and Cutch at the top of the order instead?

    • emjayinTN

      SK: Although you can count me as one of the folks enjoying this offensive explosion, the numbers do not support long time success – 1st in the NL in hitting, but 11th in the NL in team pitching, and 25th out of 30 teams in the majors in team defense. We have become the Milwaukee Brewers or Toronto Blue Jays of past years – teams which did not get much ink when the regular season ended. But this year is different for both of them because they now pitch well. Our game in 2013 was pitching and defense, with just enough offense to win a lot of close games. Unless we get out pitching back to some consistent expectation game after game, we will be just another exciting team that did not have the pitching and defense to separate from the pack. At this point, I would say that the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds have better pitching than we do, and that will be hard to overcome down the stretch. In the past few weeks we have had solid pitching performances from Volquez, Locke, Morton, and Cumpton. Gerrit Cole has been our Ace since coming up in June of 2013, and we need him to be our Ace when he comes back. Liriano is struggling, and I was glad to hear that he was going on the DL – if he can get a few weeks off, and get at least one good start before the AS Break, I will be happy.

      What is left at AAA? Worley, Nick Kingham and a guy all but left for dead, Andy Oliver. Kingham needs about 5 more good starts, and Oliver started 24 games in 2013 at AAA with 112 Walks in 124 IP, and still posted a reasonably good 4.08 ERA. He is now in the late relief role with many K’s and very few W’s, and, the way our BP has performed lately, he may be called up and stay up through the rest of the year. We are carrying 14 position players (6 bench guys), which means only 11 guys available to pitch. I think NH is trying to limp into the AS Break where he can possibly pull off a trade, and yo-yo pitchers who have options left back and forth between Indy and Pittsburgh to fill in when needed. Oliver has no options remaining, but a LHRP with velocity is very valuable if he shows he can find the plate.

      • Scott Kliesen

        Emjay, I appreciate your insight. Clearly you have an eye for discernment with this team. I agree for this team to be consistently good, they need better pitching and defense. My point was more along the lines of why choose the day the team gets back to .500 as the day to highlight pitching woes? Although it’s an accurate assessment, the timing was suspect at best on Tim’s part.

        • piratemike

          When Tim writes a ” positive ” article he gets blasted for being a shill for the Front Office.
          Pointing out that the Pitching is really up in the air is not being negative, it is just pointing to a reality that has to be looked at.

          • Scott Kliesen

            Once again, it’s the timing, not the content of the article I take issue with Mike.

      • leowalter

        From what I saw of him at AA emjay, AJ Morris could also be an option later this season.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

    @Tim – maybe you are too close to the situation, but I had a completely different perspective coming into the season:

    1. Cole would struggle in his second year. From my perspective, he’s pitched like a young #1, not like a #3

    2. No way the Pirates would re-sign AJ. I think the only reason they offered him at any number was to do him a favor and give him leverage as he negotiated with other teams

    3. Morton would be a key guy

    4. Cumpton would be back in the rotation as soon as possible

    5. Locke would definitely be back in the rotation by mid-year. The Pirates don’t give up on promising pitchers so quickly – James McDonald is a great recent example, as is Charlie Morton

    6. Searage and Hurdle would make a project out of Volquez and start to figure him out again

    7. Wandy wouldn’t last a season

    The surprising decline to me is Liriano, but when I look at the above list and consider I was expecting Cole, Morton, Cumpton, Locke and Volquez all to play roles, it’s not so terrible. The other big shock to me was Taillon’s injury, and that’s the player that has really opened a spot for Worley. At 1.5 games out of the Wild Card, we are right about where I expected to be. I figured the early season would difficult as we integrated all the pitching pieces and watched Cole through some sophomore struggles.

    What you really should be writing about is the batting. This team is on fire since May 1st, being 1st or 2nd in many categories in the NL, and McCutchen is putting up Barry Bonds mid-2003 numbers. His recent slugging percentage and OPS are astronomical, putting the rest of the NL on notice of who the real MVP is. Look at his 7 day split right now: .480/.552/1.120/1.672, 4 HR, 13 RBI.

    • Lee Young

      I’m with you on everything but #2. Call me naive, but I thought it was retirement or the Bucs with AJ.

      I’m glad he decided to NOT pitch for us….lol.

      • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

        Yeah, but as soon as AJ said “any team close to home”, you had to know it was all about one last cash grab before hanging it up. Not that I blame him – for a minimum of $16 million (one year plus buyout) and possibly $30 million (two years), I’m sure I’d do the same. That’s one-fourth again of all the money he’s ever made in MLB.

        If someone asked you to work 2 extra years past retirement, and they would pay you 1/4 of what you made for your entire career for just those two years, it would be awful hard to pass up.

  • Jeff Rhodes

    I don’t disagree with any of the individual points Tim makes. The problem is, looking at the team as it stands now is like analyzing a photograph when a baseball season is more like a feature-length movie.

    Yes, the pitching staff is patched together with spit and bailing wire now, but that doesn’t man it will stay that way. By all accounts Cole isn’t seriously injured and his rehab is going well. He could be back in the rotation in a week. Liriano’s problems are a little more serious, but no one is suggesting they’re season-ending. He should be back before the All-Star break and be fine for the second half.

    At that point, you’ll have Cole, Liriano, Morton, Volquez and Locke/Cumpton/Worley — essentially the group you came into the season counting on. Plus, you’ll have a much better offensive unit with the addition of Polanco and Walker, who should also be back in a week or so.

    Again, I agree that the current success is unsustainable with this pitching staff. But we’ll only have this pitching staff for another few days, after which, on paper at least, the team will be even stronger.

    • leowalter

      Good points Jeff. A 57 % win percentage the rest of the way from today would get them to 89 wins,which should be awfully close to a WC spot.

      • https://profiles.google.com/117072260031604417798 PikeBishop65

        They have played .600 ball since the season “really” began with the Blue Jays series on May 2 (24-16). .600 ball puts them at 90 wins. They now have the soft underbelly of the schedule coming up (Rays, D-Backs, Phillies, Mets, Cubs, bookended by the Reds). This is their chance to make a move, like they did last June.
        Let’s Go Bucs

        • leowalter

          We can both only hope they can stay in that range. I used the 57 % figure as that is how they finished last season.

  • rburgh

    What we are all ignoring is that the FO has made great strides at improving the offense in the past year. Currently, the Bucs are 8th in MLB in WRC+, and 3rd in the NL. This kind of offense, combined with even a decent pitching staff, can make noise. And if the starting pitching comes around (and the opponents scoring 4 in the ninth does not become a habit) this will be a serious playoff contender.

    Right now, Morton and Locke (SSS to be sure on him) are pitching like solid #2′s. If Cole’s injury is truly minor, he won’t need to do much more than make normal progress for his age and experience to give us three solid starters for the playoffs. And Volquez, Cumpton, Liriano, or whoever decides to step up are there in case one of these 3 falters.