First Pitch: The Pirates’ Rotation Depth in 2015 and Beyond

The Pirates will be without A.J. Burnett for an estimated four weeks. That’s better news than was expected at the start of the week, when it was feared that Burnett would be out for the rest of the season. But until then, the Pirates will need a replacement.

They went with J.A. Happ as their initial replacement for Burnett, and tonight’s first run through that experiment didn’t go so well. They’re not going to give up on Happ after just one outing, especially after giving up Adrian Sampson to get him. But who would be next in line?

If Vance Worley clears waivers, he would be the next guy to step up. But that’s no guarantee, as Worley isn’t making much, and still has a few years of control remaining if he manages to turn things around. Then again, Worley has a 4.47 xFIP this year as a starter, compared to a 3.55 xFIP as a reliever, so there’s a clear reason why the Pirates went a different direction and went with Happ (4.09 xFIP in the rotation this year).

After Worley, the next best option would be Radhames Liz, who has looked fantastic in the Indianapolis rotation as Ryan Palencer wrote today. However, Liz is a big unknown in the majors, with no guarantees that he would carry his Triple-A success up to the big leagues. Angel Sanchez becomes the top prospect at the level with Adrian Sampson gone, but you’ve got the uncertainty of a prospect making his debut in the big leagues, which doesn’t always lead to immediate results.

Right now, Happ looks like the best option, with the hope that he figures it all out sooner than later, and starts pitching closer to his xFIP. Beyond that, the Pirates depth has been hurt by injuries this year. They’ve got some interesting options to step in, but all of them are wild cards with a low probability of working out.

2016 Depth

This isn’t a topic that matters now, but the talk of Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault yesterday got me thinking about the subject of the 2016 depth. The Pirates will have a lot of guys moving up from Altoona to Indianapolis at the start of the year. They will also have some guys returning from injuries, like Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, and of course, Jameson Taillon.

Kuhl would be the top candidate to move up at the start of the year, since he’s pitched a full season in Altoona this year. Jason Creasy could be an option to move up as well, although he hasn’t had the same success this year as Kuhl, with command issues being the big issue. I could see Brault moving up to Indianapolis as a second half option, after getting more innings in Altoona. Then there are guys like Angel Sanchez, who have already moved up. And let’s not forget the biggest guy, Tyler Glasnow, who isn’t really depth as much as he is a mid-season replacement option.

Right now the Pirates look to be in a much better situation for the 2016 season with their pitching depth. Then again, a year ago the depth was supposed to be Kingham, Cumpton, Sadler, Sampson, and Taillon, and we’ve seen how quickly that can go bad. Hopefully they’ll have better results next year with injuries, as that 2016 group could be interesting.

**Happ’s Second-Half Struggles Continue in Pirates’ Loss to Cubs. Pete Ellis with live coverage from tonight’s game, including a very interesting note on Michael Morse at the end.

**Prospect Watch: Another Strong Outing From Stephen Tarpley. Includes my live report on Stephen Tarpley, which I’ll be expanding on in an article soon.


**Radhames Liz Looking Like Rotation Depth After a Mechanical Change. Ryan Palencer looks at what led to Liz turning things around in Triple-A.

**Morning Report: Remaining Schedule and Minor League Promotions


  • What does Volstad have to do to become a real option? He can’t do much more in AAA to prove himself from what i can see

  • Tim,
    How about a “bullpen depth going forward” article when you’re ready to take that one on. No hurry 🙂

    I subscribe to the “NH knows how to put together a bullpen” theory as being mostly a fallacy. Some quick #s I’ve thrown together that may or may not stand up to scrutiny as I used B-R since FG doesn’t offer detail on split seasons… and I know many folks prefer the FG definition of WAR to B-R’s, but here goes anyway…

    Since the start of the 2010 season (beginning of the Hanrahan as closer era), Bucs have employed 74 different pitchers in relief roles (not counting position players). 39 of those guys (52.7%) never broke 0.0 WAR in any season during their Pirates employ. So more than half of Neal’s bullpen arms were replacement level or worse.

    35 of those 74 pitchers participated in multiple seasons with the Bucs. Over the 5.6 seasons from 2010-present, there were 108 reliever “seasons”. Only 11 of those resulted in a WAR of 1.0 or greater. 43 of those seasons resulted in a WAR of 0.1-0.9. So 54, or precisely half, resulted in a positive WAR. 17 seasons resulted in a 0.0 WAR and 37 seasons resulted in a negative WAR.

    Assuming 2015 continues on track, only one of the six seasons resulted in a bullpen WAR over 6. The four other complete seasons were all between 4.1 and 4.9. This year might break 5, but not 6. So I’m only seeing one really good year for the pen since Neal’s had a full opportunity to install “his guys”.

    I was just fooling around with that data and realized that since 2010, the trio of Melancon/Watson and Hughes have accounted for 14.2 of the bullpen’s cumulative 27.4 WAR, or 51.8%. Which is pretty incredible given none of them pitched in 2010 and Melancon didn’t come over until 2013.

    Anyone can feel free to augment with more detailed stats (cite your sources and methodology) and argue away. I just want to get the convo started as I found myself in an argument the other night about keeping Melancon, primarily because so many pieces would have to be added to assemble a decent pen and it doesn’t appear there’s help in AAA that’s particularly promising for next year. I don’t think you trade that guy away for prospects until/unless you have a solid replacement. And I don’t see one on the horizon.

    I know this will devolve into a “closer is overrated” discussion, so I’ll just state that I generally agree on that point. I prefer fires be put out as needed and roles should be fluid. But MM and TW should be paid for putting up sub-1 WHIPs and sub-3 FIPs regardless, because Neal is not having much luck finding those guys.

    WHYG Kyle Farnsworth, lol.

    On my way to the game… hoping for “Good Locke” and a split.

  • I disagree with your reason for not calling up Angel Sanchez – “but you’ve got the uncertainty of a prospect making his debut in the big leagues, which doesn’t always lead to immediate results.” By this logic, you’d never call up a prospect. Assuming Harrison & Mercer come back healthy, this is the best chance the Pirates have had to make a deep post season run in a generation. And I know fans like to think all these “prospects” will make the future even brighter. I say the future is now, and if Happ throws another stinker, call Sanchez up and give him the ball. For one game. Would do you have to lose.

    • I would rather see Liz than Sanchez.

      I am excited for next seasons 2nd half rotation (Cole, Liriano, Taillion, and Glasnow). 4 Ace type pitchers should make the team a hard playoff out for the 2016 season and even stronger 2017 season which should be the best staff in baseball.

      • Melancon, Walker, Alvarez, Cervelli, Morton (Club option) some names that will be traded or gone this off-season and def by next off-season. Does NH keep all his assets this off-season for one big run next year? And just offer QO to Melancon, Walker and Cervelli, or trade them for multiple pieces? Melancon value will never be higher then this off-season. Hard to gauge.

    • Well early in the season you could call up a prospect expecting some “transition” period and not worry about that. This is a weird situation where you are needing immediate success, so his point of a prospect being very uncertain in his first 1-3 starts seems fair. Promote a prospect in June and a poor month is just growing pains you hope he gets over. Promote him in September in a playoff race and growing pains=no better than any other option.

  • This is random and really doesn’t relate this article but with the way current Pirates are hitting I feel like Cutch should move to the 2-hole in the lineup. Marte is definitely better in the middle of the order and I think Polanco could benefit from Cutch’s protection. Maybe throw out a lineup like this:

    1. Polanco
    2. Cutch
    3. Kang
    4. Marte
    5. Walker
    6. Cervelli
    7. Ramirez
    8. Alvarez/Morse

    • At the moment, that’s actually not a horrible idea. In fact, I kinda like it, although I might even move Pedro/Morse ahead of Ramirez as the 8 spot.

    • How about switching Marte and Walker when facing RHSP? Avoid having 3 RH hitters in a row.

      I wonder how long ARAM is going to be allowed to drag down middle of lineup?

    • you don’t put a power hitting 8th because there is no reason for a pitcher to pitch to them, they will just strike out more and be more worthless.

  • I am on-board the Taillon train. He made a huge leap forward as a pitcher during his rehab, fixing by far his biggest issue, the drop-and-drive delivery that made it hard for him to pitch down in the zone with plane. IMO this brings his upside back to what it was early in his career, in Cole’s neighborhood.

    Depending on health, performance, and need, I could see Taillon getting the call come late April.

  • When do we find out if Worley cleared? I always thought waivers was only 3 days, but clearly that isn’t right or we’d know by now.

    • I was wondering the same thing last night…

    • Waivers are three days, but Worley wasn’t necessarily placed on waivers when he was DFA’d. When a player is DFA’d, he has to be off the roster in 10 days, which would be Sunday; since waiver claims aren’t processed over the weekend, he has to be placed on waivers no later than today and claims must be filed no later than Friday (4PM EDT, I think). So we should know by Friday night or, worst case, some time over the weekend whether he was claimed or cleared.

  • It must have been a dream but I thought Worley had been claimed by the Twins.

    With respect to Morton and next season, I have been wondering if the Pirates might trade him to dump some salary and then try to pickup a more consistent starter and apply the saved salary there.

  • Opening Day Staff will be Cole, Liriano, Morton, Locke and hopefully Taillon. If not Taillon then who? Worley, Liz, or a veteran acquisition?

    By July 1 Glasnow and Taillon will certainly be in rotation barring injury. If all are healthy who gets demoted or traded, Morton or Locke?

    I could see Locke being the long man, spot starter guy better than Morton, even though having two LHSP in rotation is preferable at PNC.

    • Scott: Your first 4 are fairly locked in for the 2016 Rotation. From there it all depends on what the Pirates want to do with Taillon and Glasnow. I think they will hold them out until mid-June thereby maxing out their availability to the club for at least 6.5 years.

      Both Morton and Locke (to a lesser degree) will be at risk. Morton will make $8 mil in his last contract year with the Pirates in 2016 unless the Pirates opt to pick up a $9+ mil option on him for 2017. How he finishes this year and 2016, and his ability to avoid the DL will be determining factors, and 2017 will be his age 33 season. If he can stay healthy and pitch like he did the other day, extending that option would be a no-brainer.

      Locke still has 3 years of team control remaining which are his arbitration years, and he seems to be getting stronger with a FB that hits 94 on a regular basis this year. He is 4 years younger than Morton at 27, a LHSP, and that will also be a factor.

      • Locke is definately getting better. Easy to overlook that thinking of his entire time here, but his results are encouraging. He may be getting to a place where his value is strong. Hamels is basically a similar pitcher with a FB more like 91-93… It’s always been about command with Locke but a few more MPH never hurts.

        • Hamels has the best changeup in baseball too. I just wish Locke were more consistent. He’ll retire 10 straight guys and then walk 3 on 12 pitches. Morton is similar in that he has “one bad inning disease”.

        • I don’t know if Hamels is the greatest comparison there. This little stretch here is encouraging, but it’s a small sample size. Remember, Locke was an all-star a couple of years ago. Then he imploded in the second half. It’s all about consistency.

      • For the Pirates to keep Taillon for “6.5” years (through 2022) he must get less than 172 days of MLB service time in 2016 (assuming he gets no service time in 2015). He gets service time for an optional assignment of less than 20 days, and there’s generally around 182 days between opening day and the last day of the season, so for control, the Pirates would only have to keep him in the minors for the first three weeks of the season, not until mid-June.

        June/July comes into play with regard to Super 2 and little things like getting Taillon more than 40 innings pitched in AAA.

    • Taillon has all of 37 IP in AAA (Cole only had 74). No way he goes North with the Bucs.

      • You’re almost certainly right. The only possible factor that could swing towards Taillon going up at start of year is work he does in AFL and ST performance.

        Probably get a vet (reclamation project) to fill spot until he’s ready though.

    • I would assume they’ll go out and get someone for that fifth (hopefully third) spot in the rotation. Taillon won’t be ready to go straight to Pittsburgh after missing basically two whole years.

    • It would be a huge surprise if Taillon broke camp with the Bucs. Although I could see Bucs not waiting for the Super Two deadline if Taillon is ready.

      Glasnow might even be after July 1, depending on whether Bucs bring him up this season. Right now he’s still a two-pitch pitcher. IMO, he’ll need to be at AAA in 2016 until such time as he develops a third pitch that’s more than just a “show-me”. And if Glasnow is up here for 5-6 weeks this season, just tack that onto the Super Two deadline, so you’d probably be looking at late July, although there’s a chance Bucs don’t worry about Super Two and only concern themselves with service time, which would speed up his arrival.

      If Coonelly can negotiate a TV deal from 2019-on similar to what Cards just did, that would take some financial concerns off the table regarding how to afford Taillon/Glasnow in their arb years.

      • Agree with most of this. If he stays healthy and looks as good as he was in his rehab, I could see Taillon being promoted at the end of April.

        If that happens there is no way the Bucs bring up Glasnow before he’s Super Two safe. If they both turn out to be Aces, this team would have a hard time paying both of them 4 years of arbitration at the same time, especially those 3rd and 4th years which could be over $20m each if they end up bejng stars.