The results from the 2013 season gave some hope for the 2014 rotation. At the end of the year, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked like they had three top of the rotation guys in Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and A.J. Burnett. During the off-season, they didn’t bring back Burnett, and instead went for Edinson Volquez. As a result, there was a lot of fan backlash to the set of moves, with Pirates fans wanting Burnett back, and predicting an early exit from the rotation for Volquez.
Prior to the season, I felt the rotation looked fine. They still had Liriano and Cole returning, and would have each for a full season (Liriano was injured to start the 2013 season, and Cole was in Triple-A). They had Jameson Taillon in the wings, ready for a promotion to the majors in June. Charlie Morton looked like a middle of the rotation starter at the end of the 2013 season, and would be pitching a lot more than he did in 2013. And Volquez looked like he could at least be a league average pitcher who could throw 180+ innings.
It turned out that pretty much every prediction on the rotation was wrong. The Pirates didn’t miss Burnett. Volquez did better than everyone expected. Cole and Liriano both struggled in the first half, and both missed time due to injuries. Taillon had Tommy John surgery at the end of Spring Training.
There were some predictions that came true. Wandy Rodriguez was unreliable, and left the rotation after six starts. Charlie Morton pitched well, and pitched more than he did in 2013, although he did miss time at the end of the year with a hip injury.
Overall, the rotation struggled on the season. By the end of the season, the results looked a little better. That was thanks to Volquez and the emergence of Vance Worley.
Worley was the silver lining of the season for the Pirates. He was acquired at the end of Spring Training from the Twins for cash, and spent his first month in the organization working on his mechanics with Jim Benedict. He went to Indianapolis for a month, and looked like the pitcher he was in 2011-12 with Philadelphia. After Rodriguez was released, plus injuries to Liriano and Cole, a spot opened for Worley. He took advantage of that spot, putting up a 2.85 ERA in 110.2 innings this year. His 3.54 xFIP that suggested he wasn’t as good as the ERA, but definitely one of the better starters in the rotation.
Meanwhile, Volquez struggled some during the first half of the season, posting a 4.67 ERA through the middle of June, with a 4.24 xFIP that suggested he would get better. He was fantastic in the second half, with a 1.85 ERA, although his 4.16 xFIP suggested this time that he was getting lucky. That luck ran out in the Wild Card game, as Volquez was hit hard by the Giants, while Madison Bumgarner shut down the Pirates’ offense. On the season, Volquez had a 3.04 ERA and a 4.20 xFIP. By ERA standards, he was the second best starter in the rotation behind Worley.
Worley and Volquez gave the rotation a boost in the second half, but the bigger boost came from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. Liriano struggled before the All-Star break, posting a 4.72 ERA, but a 3.73 xFIP suggested he should have been better. Something clicked for him in the second half. He had a 2.20 ERA after the All-Star break, and a 3.11 xFIP that justified the good results.
Cole was in a similar situation. He had a 4.02 ERA through the end of June, with a 3.59 xFIP. He missed about a month and a half in July and August, after missing most of the month of June. After his return, he posted a 3.44 ERA and a 2.75 xFIP.
The Pirates struggled in the first half. Their starters combined to finish 17th in ERA, which was higher due to the strong performances from Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke in June, when Cole and Liriano went down. Locke continued performing well in July with Cole out, but struggled in the second half. The advanced metrics backed up the first half ERA, with the Pirates finishing tied for 19th, posting a 3.83 xFIP.
The second half results were much better. The Pirates’ rotation finished 5th in ERA, and 2nd in the National League with a 3.14 ERA. The xFIP of 3.63 was 10th in the majors and 5th in the NL. The plan going into the season was to rely on their top starters (Liriano and Cole), go with some reclamation projects (Volquez and Worley), and rely on some of their internal guys to step up and perform (Morton). All of that came together in the second half, leading to a group that helped the Pirates make the post-season for the second year in a row.
Heading into the 2015 season, the Pirates will have some holes in the rotation. Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez are departing as free agents. There’s a chance the Pirates could bring either guy back. Charlie Morton will probably miss some time at the start of the season after having surgery last month. That leaves Cole and Worley as the only starters.
Jeff Locke could be an option, but his struggles in the second half this year will once again put his status in question. Locke looked amazing in the first half of the 2013 season, although his xFIP suggested a regression would come, and that eventually happened. He looked amazing in the first half of the 2014 season, and this time the advanced metrics backed up the ERA. He struggled once again in the second half, seeing a lapse in control. Locke would be a good depth option next year, and possibly an early season replacement for Morton, but he’s not a guy you can rely on as a starter for the entire year.
That means the Pirates will need at least two starters this off-season, via free agency. They have had a lot of success with reclamation projects, focusing on a combination of scouting, plus adjustments from Ray Searage and Jim Benedict. Add in the defensive help from their focus on catcher defense and shifting, plus the park factors at PNC, and the Pirates are set up to improve pitchers, and have them perform above their advanced metrics, just like what happened with Volquez and Worley this year. They should continue this approach over the off-season.
Things will get better for the long-term. The Pirates have a group of pitching prospects in the upper levels, with most of them ready to take over in 2015. Jameson Taillon should be ready to go in Indianapolis on Opening Day, and could be in the majors by next June. Nick Kingham and Adrian Sampson both had success in Altoona this season, and both moved up to Indianapolis with some success at the level. They both profile as mid-rotation starters in the future, and could both be up in the first half of the 2015 season. Tyler Glasnow is the top prospect in the organization, and will start off in Double-A this year. He will probably need a full year in Double-A before getting the call to Indianapolis. His ETA will most likely be the middle of the 2016 season.
Between their top pitching prospects, and their approach with coaching, scouting, and advanced metrics, the Pirates have what it takes to put together a great starting rotation in the not-too-distant future.