This is shaping up to be one of the least surprising Spring Trainings I can remember for the Pittsburgh Pirates. There are very few position battles, with most of the roster spots already spoken for. That is probably a side effect of being a contending team, and a buyer over the off-season.
An example of this can be seen in the rotation. The Pirates added two free agent starters this off-season, bringing back two familiar faces in Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. Those two will join the guys they have in place, with the top options being Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke.
Beyond the Opening Day options, the Pirates have some nice depth. They have been drafting a lot of pitchers in the draft, and that has led to some strong pitching depth in the upper minors. Top prospects like Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and Adrian Sampson could make the jump to the majors at some point this year. Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler have already made that jump, and will be around for early season depth.
With Spring Training starting this week, we will be looking at all of the position battles on the team. Just like yesterday with the starting lineup, there aren’t many battles for the rotation. The main battle depends on whether Charlie Morton will be healthy by Opening Day. So to add further analysis, I looked at what might happen in the event of an injury during camp. Here is the outlook on the rotation, heading into Spring Training.
Guaranteed a Rotation Spot
Francisco Liriano/Gerrit Cole/A.J. Burnett – If healthy, these three are making the Opening Day rotation. They are projected to be the top three starters in that rotation. Liriano was just signed to a big, multi-year deal this off-season, and hopes to continue putting up numbers similar to what he had the last two years in Pittsburgh, which were two of the best years of his career. Burnett returns to Pittsburgh after going to Philadelphia for a year and seeing his numbers struggle. Injury was certainly part of the reason for his issues, and the lack of a focus on framing certainly didn’t help him. The hope here is that he can get close to his 2012/13 seasons, which were two of the best in his career. Finally, Cole has shown some good stuff for a Major League pitcher, but he has yet to breakout as the top of the rotation pitcher he was expected to be. It would be huge if that happened in 2015.
When Will He Return?
Charlie Morton – It definitely seems possible that Morton could be ready by Opening Day. He started throwing bullpen sessions a week before every other pitcher, and the only thing that would hold him back would be a setback, or a conservative approach by the Pirates. Such an approach would only hold him back for a few weeks, and the Pirates don’t really need a fifth starter for the first two weeks of the season (they would need one spot start before the 21st of April). He belongs in the section above, since he is guaranteed a rotation spot. However, his injury status puts him in question for Opening Day, and puts him in a category of his own.
Fighting For the Final Spot
Vance Worley/Jeff Locke – If Morton can’t make it by Opening Day, and if the Pirates want to use five starters from day one, then Worley and Locke would make the team. But eventually, they’re going to have to choose between the two for the fifth starter job.
Worley is coming off a nice half season in which he looked a lot like the version we saw in the majors when he first came up. That makes total sense, as he worked on reverting his mechanics back to his pre-injury days, which is when he was successful in the big leagues.
Meanwhile, Locke was great in the first half once again, but struggled in the second half for the second year in a row. In 2013 he had those splits, and the regression in the second half was predictable, based on his advanced metrics. Last year the advanced metrics matched the performance he was putting up, but he still struggled in the second half. He has shown signs of being a good MLB starter, but the second half collapse two years in a row raises questions about whether he can be relied on all year.
What Happens if There is an Injury During Camp?
The Pirates have plenty of starting pitching depth, so they’ll be covered if there is an injury that comes up during Spring Training. If Charlie Morton is ready to play at the start of the season, then an injury would just mean that Worley and Locke will both make the team (assuming, of course, that the injury isn’t to one of those two players).
If Morton can’t make it by Opening Day, then the Pirates could take advantage of their early schedule, go with four starters for the first two weeks, call up Brandon Cumpton for a spot start on April 15th, and re-evaluate the rotation going forward on April 21st, when they will need a fifth starter for good.
Beyond that, I’d say that the early season call-up candidates are Cumpton and Clayton Richard. Richard will largely depend on whether he can be this year’s version of Worley, which is something I wrote about a few weeks ago. I’d include Casey Sadler in this mix, but the Pirates used him out of the bullpen last year during his callups, and I could see him going to the bullpen full-time in Indianapolis this year. Nick Kingham and Adrian Sampson both have time in Triple-A, although I think they’re both better options for mid-season, after they get more work at the Triple-A level.