A big reason why the Pittsburgh Pirates were successful last season was due to their pitching staff, and more specifically, the depth of their staff. Every time a starting pitcher went down, someone was there to step in and keep the team afloat.
The depth in 2014 has also been strong, although the story isn’t exactly the same for the guys that are being replaced. The Opening Day rotation included Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez, Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez. The final two starters have been with the team all year. The first three starters have needed depth options to replace them at times. And none of those options have done that well.
Wandy Rodriguez was horrible in his time with the Pirates this year. Francisco Liriano has struggled, although his xFIP suggests he should be better going forward. The only guy with good numbers has been Gerrit Cole, although he’s not looking like the ace he looked like at the end of last season.
The current rotation includes Cole, Morton, Volquez, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley. The last two guys are depth options who started the year in the minors. The Pirates sent another depth option down today, optioning Brandon Cumpton to Triple-A when Cole was activated from the DL.
Cumpton, Locke, and Worley have been outstanding this year. They have combined for a 3.78 ERA in 107 innings. That’s number three starter results from guys who weren’t among the top five starters on Opening Day. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the group’s total is inflated by a horrible outing from Cumpton where he gave up ten earned runs in 3.2 innings. Take that away, and the group has a combined 3.05 ERA in 103.1 innings.
You’d like to think that the current rotation will continue to do well, and will stay healthy the remainder of the year. As we’ve seen the last two years, neither of those things are guaranteed. Fortunately for the Pirates, they’ve got some good depth options beyond Locke and Worley if the team needs a starter in the second half. Here is a look at the top candidates.
Brandon Cumpton – He would be the top guy right now, just because of his MLB experience. As I pointed out, he has that one bad outing, which gives him a 4.61 ERA. His 3.93 xFIP is much better, and actually ranks fifth among all Pirates starters this year. Cumpton will get another shot in the MLB rotation this year.
Casey Sadler – Sadler has been used in the majors this year, but he’s been a reliever, and has been used in a way where he hasn’t gotten regular playing time. The result is a 6.23 ERA in 8.2 innings. Since returning to Triple-A, and returning to a regular pitching schedule, he has one earned run in 18 innings over three starts.
Stolmy Pimentel – Pimentel looked great today, touching 97 with his fastball several times, and topping out at 98. He worked in the 93-95 MPH range most of his outing, throwing four innings. He also mixed in an upper 80s slider. This combination with his fastball and slider is largely what put him back on the prospect map last year. We haven’t seen this version of Pimentel much this season, and that might be due to a lack of use and infrequent opportunities. He would be a good option to start if he was stretched out, although that might be hard when he’s pitching out of the bullpen.
Nick Kingham – Kingham has been great so far with Indianapolis, giving up one earned runs on 11 hits in 20.2 innings, with a 15:3 K/BB ratio. That’s the limit to his time in Triple-A, although there is precedent for players making the jump to the majors in the Pirates’ system without a lot of innings. Jeff Locke made a late season jump a few years ago without a lot of innings in Triple-A. Brandon Cumpton made the jump last season without a lot of innings. I could see Kingham making the jump to the majors later in the year if he keeps up this pace with Indianapolis.
Francisco Liriano – This isn’t really a depth option, since Liriano will return to the rotation no matter what when he’s activated. It will create a depth situation, as someone will have to be removed from the rotation to make room for him. Edinson Volquez or Vance Worley could be moved to the bullpen, or Jeff Locke could be optioned to Triple-A. There seems to be a few weeks to go before Liriano will return, so a lot could happen. If a move was needed today, I’d move Volquez to the bullpen, and have him be the number one depth option. As for Liriano, he’s not technically a depth option, but he could be the biggest boost for the rotation in the second half. He has been horrible this year, but the advanced metrics say he should be better. He’s nowhere close to being the ace he was last year. If that pitcher somehow returns, then the Pirates will be in good shape with their rotation over the final two months of the season.
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