One of the biggest keys to the 2013 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates was their pitching depth. The Pirates used 12 different starting pitchers, and most of those starters were used in the first three months of the season. That didn’t count guys like Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson, who were counted on pre-season as depth options, but weren’t available due to injuries.

The off-season focus is always on the five man rotation, but I think that the 2013 season makes a strong case that the next five starters are far more important than the first five. Very few teams will make it with just the first five starters, which means that 6-10 group is going to be needed for a lot of starts. In the Pirates case, they had 82 starts this year from their Opening Day rotation, and 82 from the next seven players on the depth chart. It’s important to note that 46 of those starts came from Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, who both started the year on the DL and were expected to join the rotation at some point. But I don’t want to use revisionist history here, because neither pitcher was seen as a guarantee to provide any kind of strong production before they returned.

The 2013 season was a prime example of the importance of pitching depth. So how does the depth stack up in 2014?

In previous years we have seen the Pirates prioritize short-term depth at Triple-A. This has meant that some players have started back in Double-A so that the Pirates could have major league options available in the Triple-A rotation. In the long-term, this doesn’t impact anything. In 2011 the Pirates started Jeff Locke back in Double-A so that Brian Burres and Sean Gallagher could provide depth out of Triple-A. Both players ended up in Pittsburgh that year, but more importantly, Locke made it to Triple-A by mid-season and was in the majors by the end of the year.

In 2014, the Pirates could have a situation where they might hold prospects back, although only because other prospects or young players will be filling the Triple-A rotation as immediate depth. A lot will depend on the major league rotation. If A.J. Burnett returns, then I project the major league rotation to look like this:

Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez

Obviously Wandy Rodriguez is a wild card, due to his health issues. The key person absent from this group would be Jeff Locke. He’s the only player from the above group with an option remaining, other than Gerrit Cole, and you’re not optioning Cole. That means Locke is your sixth starter out of Triple-A if Burnett returns.

Jameson Taillon will be the 2014 version of Gerrit Cole.
Jameson Taillon will be the 2014 version of Gerrit Cole.

Jameson Taillon will absolutely be starting the season in Triple-A, which takes a second rotation spot. Taillon won’t be ready until at least the middle of June, much like Gerrit Cole this year. But depth isn’t just about the early part of the season. Cole came up at a key time when the Pirates needed a starter to fill out the rotation. They lost three starting pitchers in the first eight days in June, and Cole was a big reason why the rotation stayed stable the rest of the season, despite those injuries. Hopefully Taillon will only be needed as a luxury, rather than a need.

Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin both made it to the majors this past season. Both will probably start with Indianapolis, giving two more options as early season starters behind Locke. I’d put them at number 7 and 8 respectively on the early season depth charts. The Pirates went through a ton of depth in the first two months of the 2013 season. That was unusual. Usually a team won’t go through eight starters until the middle of the season. So Locke, Cumpton, and Irwin should be enough until Taillon is ready.

That leaves one rotation spot in Triple-A, and two prospects from Double-A as contenders. Nick Kingham had a great year, with a 2.70 ERA in 73.1 innings with Altoona in the second half. Kingham could be ready for the majors in the second half of the 2013 season. Another candidate to make the jump is Casey Sadler. He had a 3.31 ERA in 130.1 innings with Altoona, and made the late season jump to Indianapolis. Kingham is the better prospect of the two, with the potential to be as high as a number two starter, but more conservatively a strong number three who can pitch 200 innings per year. Sadler is a sinkerball pitcher who fits into the Pirates’ scheme well. If I was leaving one pitcher back in Double-A at the start of the season, it would be Sadler. However, both could be options for the major league rotation late in the season.

Kyle McPherson is also a depth option. He will miss half the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent on July 10th. To give an idea of the timeline for a return, Charlie Morton underwent Tommy John surgery in early June 2012, and returned almost exactly one year later. That would put McPherson on a return to the majors around mid-July if all goes well with his recovery.

If the Pirates can keep Kris Johnson, then they will have another depth option. Johnson is under team control and has options remaining. I’d expect Johnson to pitch out of the bullpen in Triple-A at the start of the season, but he could move back to the rotation if the Pirates run into extreme trouble again.

I also think that Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, and Justin Wilson could be options as spot starters. I wouldn’t be against trying Wilson and Pimentel as starters in Spring Training, especially if Burnett doesn’t return. Of the two, Pimentel seems more likely to be used in a long-relief/spot starting role out of the bullpen.

To recap, here is my projected current depth chart, assuming A.J. Burnett returns:

1. Francisco Liriano

2. Gerrit Cole

3. A.J. Burnett

4. Charlie Morton

5. Wandy Rodriguez

6. Jeff Locke

7. Brandon Cumpton

8. Phil Irwin

9. Jameson Taillon (From this point down, guys are rated based on their estimated arrival)

10. Nick Kingham

11. Casey Sadler

12. Kyle McPherson

13. Kris Johnson

Spot Starting Options – Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, Justin Wilson

Even without making a move, the Pirates will have a lot of rotation depth. If Burnett doesn’t return, they will still have a strong rotation and plenty of depth, and could look to bring someone in from the outside. They will almost certainly bring in someone over the off-season, even if that’s an NRI candidate. Their depth could also make it possible to trade someone, although they would want to avoid trading a key long-term piece just because he’s a depth option in the short-term.

The depth in 2014 looks great, with a lot of the 2013 depth options returning, and new prospects becoming available by the middle of the season. The best thing is that the Pirates probably won’t need to turn to their depth as early and as often as they did this year, unless they have another fluke season with a lot of early injuries.

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  1. This brings me back to the “Trade Liriano” article from yesterday. They’re a Liriano trade and AJ Burnett retirement from a Cole Morton Wandy Locke Cumpton top 5. Something that I wouldn’t quite be okay with, whether a Liriano trade is the right move or not.

    They would need some kind of assurance that they could sign a Josh Johnson or a Dan Haren or something or receive major league ready options in the Liriano trade.

    This is a team with a ton of depth ready to make starts and eat innings. I’m just not sure they have the upper-half-of-a-rotation depth to lose both Liriano and Burnett and not have a Ace, a 2, or a 3 coming back via FA or trade.

    • “They would need some kind of assurance that they could sign a Josh Johnson or a Dan Haren or something or receive major league ready options in the Liriano trade.”

      They have enough money that they could get someone through free agency. Also, I’d be really interested to see how either Justin Wilson or Stolmy Pimentel could do. They both have top of the rotation stuff, but have lacked consistency as starters, making them #3-4 options at best.

      • IMO Pimentel is still a solid option because he threw so many innings this season.

        Wilson would be on a limit since he was a reliever this season. I think the ship has sailed for Wilson being moved to a starter but it’s not like he isn’t already an elite reliever.

  2. … if a pitcher needs an umpire to widen the strike zone then maybe it is even BETTER if we do go to computer strike zone… If you state Maddox wouldn’t have been as good with actual balls being called balls then that is exactly what should happen… You made the wrong argument at almost every turn.

  3. Let’s get back on topic here if AJ retires, Locke continues his second half 2013 form aka McDonald and Wandy is hurt, do we really trust Cumpton, Pimentel, Gomez or Irwin to round out the rotation?

    Normally I’d say yes. But normally the Pirates are not coming off a 94 win season. Free agency to some degree is a must IMO.

  4. Mr. Hale. Your initial comment was — “Just got caught up on a couple weeks of Pirates Prospects articles. Good stuff.”

    You then go on to question if Tim (or anyone else who uses advanced stats) really understands the game, and question nearly anything else that you yourself labeled as good stuff.

    I also believe there is an easy answer to your ponderings about stat geeks — The Pirates relied upon advanced statistics to determine how to position their infielders and the pay-off was a significant improvement in the quality of their defense and a reduction in the number of runs against the team and individual pitchers. Hurdle and Searage both embraced this approach and the proof is in the pudding.

    While the Pirates have a number of good (but not great) defenders – Barmes (although I believe his defense is over-rated based on how I see him perform), Walker, Sanchez, and McCutchen, and two superior defensive players in Martin and Marte, the sum of the parts played better than the individual parts by the team significantly cutting down on the number of runs against them because of how they positioned their players.

    While I love watching the game and forming my own opinions of how players are performing, I respect the work of sabrematicians because I believe they are helping to make a great game even better. And, the day that managers have less players bunting, I will know that the ‘nonsense stats’ guys have finally succeeded in wiping out an old and tired baseball axiom about playing for one run (even if it is the top of the 1st like Leyland used to do with Bell bunting and the Pirates’ best hitters coming to the plate).

    Oh, it also may be wise if you stick with baseball analogies rather than venturing into the world of politics for which you appear to be quite naïve if you truly believe that it is ‘liberals’ who have had a no holds barred assault on the constitution. Hey, didn’t the Pubs want to change the constitution so Arnold could run for President; and now so many Pubs go on a birther witch-hunt.

  5. I wonder if Tim Williams or Bill James ever tried to hit a 90+ MPH fastball or 12 to 6 curve ball? or snag a line shot off the bat off the 4 hitter. not likely

    • Chris…I love Sabrmetrics and I have done both of those. Clint Hurdle has done that also (as has NH) and they embrace Sabrmetrics. Just because YOU think they’re foolish, don ‘t put down people who love them.
      Btw, I encourage you to take your SABR-hating ways over to Bucs Dugout. They’d love you over there.

      One last thing…you obviously don’t love English. I had trouble making it past your first couple of sentences, because I have NO idea what you meant when you wrote:
      “The only thing about baseball writers today are so caught up on Sabermetrics . I think this is another example of over the world today trying to perfect everything,”

      Another example of “over the world”???


      • Ditto. Played at NCAA level. Raw pitching talent at that level, but the arms had speed and could throw hooks. Where they typically lacked was speed changes and deception (which is why I still don’t buy into Marte – bat isn’t quick enough to hit garbage like Vlad’s was).

        And while Sabremetrics isn’t perfect, it’s generally accurate for most offensive and pitching metrics. Not so much defense yet.

    • I didn’t. I quit baseball early to play tennis. By 8th grade I was playing 2-3 tournaments per weekend, and gave up all other sports. I have returned a 100+ MPH serve.

      Of course the idea that you have to play to understand the game is ridiculous. I don’t need to have hit a curveball to recognize who can and can’t do the same.

    • ” I wonder if Tim Williams or Bill James ever tried to hit a 90+ MPH fastball or 12 to 6 curve ball? or snag a line shot off the bat off the 4 hitter. not likely. ” WTF does that have to do with it ???? I did all of that,50 years ago,but I learned to marry the sabremetrics with the eye test some time ago,by listening to a lot of scouts and watching one hell of a lot of Professional baseball. You are one schizo person !

  6. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much starting pitching talent from two organizations in the same division Pit and Stl I really am looking forward to seeing our hopefull future rotation of Cole/Taillon/Glasnow/Heredia/Kingham battle Wacha/Miller/Kelly/Martinez/Lynn. Should provide some epic season series

  7. My gut also says AJ is back but Wandy isn’t. I just hope Burnett decides in a timely manner. His return or retirement changes the offseason game plan dramatically.

  8. Most of the people that use these “nonsense stats” are people that never stepped foot on the field or weren’t good enough to get in the game if they were on the team It doesn’t take any stats to tell a real eye for the game whether a pitcher is a fly ball or ground ball pitcher. Or if a player has range or not. Maz is n the HOF because he hit a Walk off HR in a world series

    • Actually the majority of the people who use these stats are intelligent people who understand the game really well. And many of them played it well. Don’t knock what you clearly don’t understand.

      • Or you think they do because you obsess over them. I could care less how smart you are, until you’ve been on the field or managed and profession game you know nothing. I love how the computer geeks think they can figure out the game with a calculator . LOL I bet half of which all got flushed at one point of their life or were bullied and given Wedgies

        • I’m trying to figure out what any of this nonsense you’re blowing out your piehole has to do with anything. While I’m not a advanced stats guy, the eye test only goes so far. Not to mention that personal biases tend to cloud your judgement and perception.

          If it weren’t for computers and analytics, the Pirates would not have been able to employ the shifts that were successful beyond compare. Like it or not, the advanced stats a re here to stay.

        • I want to believe that this is not a troll, but I can’t. It is just too perfect. From the progessive liberals ruining our country, to “nonsense stats”, to computer nerds, to season tickets behind the dugout. Just too perfect! I want to believe you are for real, Chris Hale, but I’ve been around the block a few too many times to be taken in by your chicanery.

    • Maz also has great advanced defensive stats. So this isn’t the popular “if people only relied on stats, Maz wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame”. He’d be an even stronger candidate.

    • You must be reading the sabre stats on Maz,I am sure he never played when you were alive. I saw him numerous times,and Neil Walker,being a player I happen to like ,would never take the beating Mazeroski did,let alone field his position as well. You are starting to dig yourself a fairly deep hole.

  9. My gut says that AJ is back, but Wandy isn’t. Don’t know why, just don’t think Wandy’s injury will allow him to return effectively. I also think that Locke has stuff to work on, and that Morton may end up being…….tendered and traded.

    Little convoluted, but lets say Morton stays, it would make my rotation Cole, Liriano, AJ, Morton and a 1-year FA like Josh Johnson (or Roberto Hernandez or Dan Haren or some other Searage reclamation that fits their profile).

    With Taillon and Kingham possibly arriving as long-term keepers in 2014,(with McPherson coming too) and maybe Sadler and Thornton, then those last two, along with Irwin, Locke, Cumpton, KJohnson and Jeanmar may become offseason trade chips, hopefully in a deal for a bat.

    If AJ retires………all bets are off 🙂

  10. So with the Indy staff you’ve predicted, you’re admitting Benedict couldn’t fix Andy Oliver and Searage probably wouldn’t be able to either in ST.

    Assuming Wandy is toast and Locke doesn’t get better, Liriano is the only LHP at the ML level. At best Kris Johnson’s upside is a 5. If Oliver can’t be fixed, that’s a bit of hole in the system – is there a LH who will be ready for 2015 once Liriano is gone?

    • Oliver is out of options, so I see him being non-tendered or traded this off-season.

      As for lefty starters, Locke is the best bet by 2015. The next in line would be Joely Rodriguez. He could be ready by mid-2015, but 2016 is more likely. But by mid-2015 they could have Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham. All four are right-handers, but all four are also potential #1-2 starters. I’d be fine with a right-handed heavy rotation if that’s the upside.

  11. I think the depth is good if AJ returns, Wandy is healthy and Locke returns to 4th or 5th starter form. IMO all three of those things are serious ifs at this point.

  12. What about Karstens? Any word and whether he expects to be healthy for 2014? And would we bring him back again?

    • I doubt he gets even a minor league offer from us. Not sure what the market is for him now. Nobody rushed to sign him last year, soooooooo.

      I like Karsty, but he just can’t stay healthy.

  13. If there is such a thing as “too much depth” then this might be it – especially with the Pirates so thin on infield prospects at the upper levels. Once the Burnett situation is resolved (and potentially Liriano), NH is almost certainly going to explore trades to convert one or more of the depth guys into a hitter.

    Looking further into the future, in ’15 the Bucs will have Cole, Locke and Taillon, maybe Kingham, and at least one FASPTBNL and NRI; in ’16 add Glasnow to the above. I bring this up because it’s quite possible that neither Irwin nor Cumpton will ever make a Pirates Opening Day rotation, despite being controllable, quality arms that can get major league hitters out. Cumpton especially will have value this offseason, and Irwin at the ’14 trading deadline.

  14. Just got caught up on a couple weeks of Pirates Prospects articles. Good stuff. The only thing about baseball writers today are so caught up on Sabermetrics . I think this is another example of over the world today trying to perfect everything, Make changes to good things that are already so great because it’s the way it was intended to be. Which is why our country is falling apart. Liberals trying to change things like the constitution. Baseball is a lot like that. with these nonsense stats to decide whether you should or shouldn’t sign him or the talk of a computer calling balls or strikes or instant replay making close calls. Taking the human element out of baseball will destroy it. If a hitter knows the right call is going to be made every pitch this is going to change the game. Runs will go up. guys like Greg Maddux wont nearly be as great. This seriously effects the game in a negative way. just like this over analyzing of these pointless stats. The only thing that matter’s is if the player fits for his specific team. The Pirates are a better team with Neil Walker on it. I’m not saying give him a large deal now but Mr Williams is completely wrong about Neil Walker being an Average 2nd basemen. He is easily in the top 10, I don’t care what kind of bogus stats there are. As a traditional baseball fan I see 1 stat. Wins and loses. This is one of the closest teams I have ever watched and I have season tickets right by the dugout so I see and hear everything at home games. Neil Walker is as critical to the success of this team as anyone in that clubhouse. Bank it. Until the back injury offensively he was a top 7 hitter from the 2B position and he’s healthy now. I can nearly guarantee you Walker will have a monster year in 2014. He found something in his swing in September, He got cold in the playoffs but a a couple hits here or there that went straight into the fielders glove that could have easily went for a hit is all that separates him from the rest of the lineup other than Byrd and Pedro. Tim’s wrong about something else to. A players prime. Sure after 27 a players speed might start to decrease but the become better hitters with more knowledge and power. A hitters prime is actually 28-32. Like someone else mentioned Walker pays for himself with his popularity around Pittsburgh alone. It’s really hard for out of towner’s to realize the impact Walker makes to the team. Bill Mazeroski was a great 2nd basemen and a leader for the Pirates and is now in the Hall of Fame. Neil Walker as a full package is a far better all around package. Throw out the B.S stats and focus on what is more vital to a city and a team . Team Attitude. Do they win or Lose. Are the better or worse without this player? Another thing. Anyone that sees jordy Mercer as an option for SS longterm clearly doesn’t get it

    • There are too many ridiculous statements in there to count. Those “nonsense stats” are what caused the Bucs to sign and be extremely successful with groundball pitchers with decent xFIPs that would play to their shifts. Jordy Mercer became the starting SS this year because he is a solid, consistent hitter and an improving fielder who may end up taking Walker’s place at second base. He’s a much more consistent hitter than Walker and is not a possible platoon candidate, unlike Walker who can’t hit lefties. (I hope that changes). I like Walker a lot and would be sad to lose him, but anybody who puts him in the same sentence with Bill Mazaroski is either a relative or “clearly doesn’t get it.”

      • Walker’s offensive numbers exceed what Mazaeroski’s were at the plate look up Maz’s offensive number, they were below average. Also Jordy Mercer is a tall and lanky SS who isn’t near athletic as most SS. Most think he winds up at 3rd or 2B. Probably a bench player He’s not built like a a normal SS m and no where near as athletic as the bigger shortstops. His play at SS was below average this year. He cost the Pirates 3 games that i can remember with his defense. Those same stats put Mercer and Barmes about even at shortstop when anyone who’s every seen a game would clearly disagree with

        • Chris, I don’t think anything you said is ridiculous- unlike some of these other people. I rarely agree with Tim, but I think you are too far the other way. Those stats are useful….in the right context, they do help gameplan and put together players that fit said gameplan. They also provide insight as to why a players numbers are what they are. I agree with you that there are a lot of intangibles that have value that Tim completely refuses to give value to just like a scientist disgards any information that can’t be quantified. Both schools need to work together to be successful. Maybe that’s why we have an idiot for a manager who makes gut decisions constantly….to offer a dissenting approach to a pure sabremetrics organization. to be successful, all schools of thought can be optimized. Jordy Mercer did actually lose 3 games at least, i’m not going to argue that, but he also had some very strong defensive games as well and offensively won some games for us that Barmes would not have done squat. I think Mercer gives more total value than Barmes but I think we should still strive for a player who can play similar defense as barmes and put up an over .700 OPS against both lefties and righties, run bases well, and give us maybe 20 steals a year and be able to put down a bunt. That isn’t asking that much! Mercer I think will eventually replace Walker because I don’t think Walker will ever be able to hit lefties either, he has this offseason to work on that because i’m sure Neil is aware of the situation he’s in. Neil has 2014 to prove us wrong otherwise id see him being moved.

          • “I agree with you that there are a lot of intangibles that have value that Tim completely refuses to give value to just like a scientist disgards any information that can’t be quantified. Both schools need to work together to be successful.”

            To the first point, that’s not true. To the second point, I agree 100%. I’m heavy on statistical analysis, but I always try to match live analysis with stats. In fact, my recipe for most articles involves:

            1. Stats
            2. Live, personal reports
            3. Conversations with the player and coaches
            4. Conversations with scouts from other organizations

            In a lot of cases, especially in the minors, live reports easily dominate over statistical analysis. Take Alen Hanson. If I was only looking at stats, I’d say he was a bad defender due to his errors. But I watched him a lot. I saw the skills. I know that he’s young (just turned 21 today), and a lot of his errors are probably due to age instead of a lack of skill. That’s one example where I’m disregarding stats and going with the live reports.

            If I only cared about stats, I wouldn’t spend so much time and effort trying to see every player in the system multiple times, every year. I absolutely feel that the best approach is a blend of stats and live analysis.

      • For the record Boston paid for their recent world series titles. Small Market teams win one way. Home grown talent through the draft. Period As a matter of fact how many small market teams have won a world series lately? Giants ,Red Sox,Cardinals (who are not a large market team but they pull in a ton of revenue and spend almost double what the Pirates do plus they have the #1 farm system in baseball. A’s,Rays,Now the Pirates have all gotten close but usually fall late to team’s who spend. It’s not impossible but it’s a lot harder. The Pirates are doing it right. Drafting young starting pitching. It’s going to take the Cole’s and Taillon’s and Kingham’s and Heredia’s and Glasnow’s to get to the big show to win a World Championship. We lost to STL because they out pitched us. They have 6 starters with plus stuff so they had to send 2 of them to the pen for the playoffs. The Pirates have 2 SP with enough stuff to match up with the Wacha’s,Waino’s,Kelly’s.

    • Why does having inconsistent strike zones with hundreds of wrong calls make baseball a better game????? Having strikes called correctly would only improve the game. And if having a consistent strike zone helps the offense a bit, that would help also.

      • They haven’t developed a system for it yet. The current technology only handles the front plane, not the sides. Nor does it adjust to the size of the batter or their stance.

        I strongly suggest anyone who has a problem with umps read “As They See It” by Bruce Weber, who went to ump school, did some games, interviewed a bunch of umps. Great read and plenty of interesting inside baseball info.

    • Chris, your a long time baseball fan?? please stick to baseball, then you will only be wrong once. The Redsox’s won their first championship in a ton of years, because they used Sabermetrics. Tim has talked about it all year and showed why the pitchers the pirates picked up were doing so good. Baseball is the least progressive professional sport. They still have a hard time with the league management coming into the 21st century. But, with Sabermetrics, the teams are using statistics and computers to update baseball. Even basketball and Hockey are starting to use this system.
      You can stay with the NY Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, but everyone else is moving on.
      Tim, thanks for helping everyone understand 21st century baseball with Sabermetrics.

    • Not to get into any big argument ,but anyone who thinks Neil Walker is as important defesively as a Bill Mazeroski has a lot to learn about MLB,season tickets or not.

  15. I know what homeritis can do to judgement Tim,but having seen all on your list but Liriano during their Minor League travels,that is some serious,and young, depth there. The future,barring injuries of course,is THAT bright !

    • I don’t think there’s any homeritis involved saying they’ve got good depth. We’ve both seen these guys a lot coming through the system. Guys like Taillon and Kingham are better than what the Pirates have ever seen in the past, and the rest of the guys are what the Pirates used to see in their 1-5 spots of the rotation.

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