2015 Rotation Recap: Injuries Pushed the Arrival of the Prospects Back a Year

On the surface, it appeared the Pirates did a great job of keeping their rotation healthy this year.

**Gerrit Cole pitched a career high 208 innings during the regular season, plus his Wild Card appearance.

**Francisco Liriano pitched 186.2 innings, which fell just shy of his career best of 191.2 innings in 2010, while his 31 starts matched a career best from that same 2010 season.

**Jeff Locke made 30 starts, giving the Pirates three starters with 30+ starts this year, after having just four combined over the last three seasons.

**Despite an injury, A.J. Burnett was able to throw 164 innings, and they replaced his lost time with J.A. Happ, who was an exceptional pickup at the trade deadline.

The Pirates were hit by the injury bug that seems unavoidable for all teams and their starting rotation. This year, most of the injuries actually came to their depth options.

Brandon Cumpton was an unsung hero the last two years, stepping up to make 15 starts when the team needed him as an injury replacement, and putting up a 4.09 ERA in 83.2 innings in the process, which is outstanding for a guy coming out of Triple-A as an injury replacement. But Cumpton was lost in Spring Training to Tommy John surgery, which removed the top early season depth option for the Pirates.

Casey Sadler stepped up in that role, making one start in April, and giving up two runs in five innings. This was even more impressive, as Sadler admitted he was dealing with elbow issues since Spring Training. He missed almost all of the season trying to recover from those issues, and eventually had Tommy John surgery at the end of the year.

Tommy John was also the theme for the two top prospects who were expected to debut at mid-season. Nick Kingham had a 3.58 ERA in 88 innings last year with Indianapolis, and didn’t look far off from a spot in Pittsburgh. However, his command struggled at times in 2015, his numbers dropped, and he eventually went on to have the surgery in May, which removed him as an option to come up mid-season.

Jameson Taillon was returning from Tommy John surgery last year, but experienced a few setbacks, with the big one being hernia surgery in July, right when he was about to pitch in his first official game. Taillon made several starts in extended Spring Training, and looked better than he ever had in terms of mechanics and being able to throw the ball down in the zone. He probably would have been an option for the Pirates over the final two months if he had remained healthy.

It’s hard to say how these injuries might have changed the 2015 season in the majors. Perhaps the biggest impact is that the Pirates might not have traded for J.A. Happ at the deadline, sending out Adrian Sampson in the process, who was another rotation depth option that was struggling when the team needed him. If Taillon or Kingham are healthy at that time, they might have turned to one of the prospects to replace the injured Burnett, and it would have been extremely difficult for those guys to replicate what Happ did down the stretch.

The easy thing to say is that Taillon and Kingham would have provided an upgrade over Jeff Locke or Charlie Morton. You’re obviously not providing an upgrade over Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, or A.J. Burnett. Those three starters were fantastic this year. Out of the 78 starters with 160+ innings, those three finished in the top 25 in ERA. Cole and Liriano tied for 14th in xFIP, while Burnett just missed the top 25, coming in at 27th with a 3.55 xFIP. That’s about as strong of a top three as you can get, and it’s a big reason why the Pirates finished 5th in ERA and 4th in xFIP of all starting groups in the majors this year.

The only possible upgrade would have been in the second half for Locke. He continued a trend this year of having a good first half, and a weak second half. He posted a 4.03 ERA in 96 innings before the break, but struggled with a 5.10 ERA in 72.1 innings after the break. It wasn’t exactly that cut and dry. He did well in his first three starts, then had a 6.28 ERA over his next eight outings, with only a few good starts in there. From that point, he got his numbers down with a strong run over his final six starts of the first half, posting a 1.59 ERA in 34 innings.

As for Morton, he missed the start of the season as he worked on his mechanics in Spring Training with Jim Benedict, trying to get back to when he was most successful after a rough Spring. That seemed to work, as he posted a 4.15 ERA in the first half, after coming up at the end of May. This was where the Pirates could have used some early season depth, as Vance Worley struggled with a 4.81 ERA in the rotation in place of Morton, with no strong option to take over due to the injuries.

Morton’s second half doesn’t look as good, but that’s roughly due to a few starts in late September. He posted a 3.92 ERA in 66.2 innings in the second half, up until his final three outings of the year. That’s when he exploded with 16 earned runs in 10.1 innings. Outside of those three starts, he had a 4.02 ERA in 118.2 innings the rest of the season.

In the past, I’ve updated a study originally done by Jeff Sackmann at Hardball Times in 2006. The study aimed to get a realistic expectation for each rotation spot, and the results are usually way different from what people generally expect. My most recent update came before the 2014 season (and I might do an additional update this off-season). At that time, an average #4 starter in baseball had a 4.32 ERA. The average number four starter in the top 15 rotations had a 4.00 ERA. A number four starter was generally expected to be in the 4.19-5.09 ERA range. This was all based on the 2013 numbers, which actually saw better pitching across the league than 2015 (3.87 overall MLB ERA in 2013 vs 3.96 in 2015). So I doubt the numbers for back of the rotation guys would have improved this year.

I bring this up because it’s good to get realistic expectations for Locke and Morton. I call them strong number four starters, because that’s what they are. Since changing his mechanics in 2011, Morton has posted a 3.96 ERA, with advanced metrics that back that number up. Since Locke has become a regular starter in 2013 (following a new turn added to his delivery in 2012), he has posted a 3.98 ERA, with his advanced metrics also backing that up. These totals include their full 2015 seasons.

For the first half of the 2015 season, Locke put up those numbers. For most of the 2015 season, Morton matched his numbers. Yet the rest of the rotation was so good that it probably led to unrealistic expectations for the final two starters. That only got worse when J.A. Happ joined the mix and started dominating down the stretch. I’ve seen complains about Morton and Locke that said they don’t belong in the majors, which is simply not true.

That said, in the second half, Locke was pitching like an average number five starter, or a guy who should be in the minors on a contending team. It would have been nice to upgrade over him during this time, but all of the upgrade options were down with injuries at that point. By the time Burnett returned, the team used six starters at times to keep everyone fresh, so Locke continued getting starts.

I don’t think the depth options or the prospects would have provided a big impact over Morton (minus his final three outings) or Locke in the first half. But they definitely would have been able to improve things in the second half with Locke’s struggles, while possibly avoiding Morton’s final three outings once Burnett returned. Then again, that upgrade might have been negated if Happ isn’t on the team, which is probably the case if Taillon and/or Kingham are healthy at the deadline.

The Future

This time last year, the Pirates were entering the off-season with Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton as their only starters under team control. They eventually went on to sign Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, rounding out their rotation. So I’m not concerned that they’ve currently got Cole, Liriano, Locke, and Morton as their starters, since they will almost certainly add someone this off-season. The question is whether they should add more than one starter.

The Pirates have a new group of prospects ready to come up in 2016. Jameson Taillon will be healthy for the start of the year, and should get some time in Triple-A before being an option for the majors. Tyler Glasnow is the top prospect in the system, and needs to improve his off-speed stuff, while continuing to improve his control, before coming up. Both could be ready for the jump by mid-season.

Beyond those two, there are other options who could make the jump to Triple-A at the start of the year. Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl are the top two options at the start of the year. Steven Brault could also make that jump in 2016, although I think it’s less likely for him at the start of the year, since the Pirates usually add a minor league free agent starter or a low-key veteran trade for the final spot (which was Vance Worley in 2014 and Clayton Richard in 2015). I put Brault behind Kuhl and Williams because the other two have already made the jump to Triple-A, while Kuhl has pitched half a season in Double-A. But if there were additional spots, Brault would be worth the promotion.

Obviously, things can go wrong with the prospects and the depth options, as we saw in 2015. But starting the year with five rotation depth options in Triple-A, and potentially more in Double-A, is a good thing to have behind Locke and Morton, especially when they’d be projected to be replaced mid-season by the top two prospects.

But what about the first half? Looking at the long-term numbers above, Morton and Locke definitely belong in a rotation, and even belong in a contending rotation. I don’t want to make too much of Locke’s first half trends, but if those hold up, he’d definitely be a good fit for the rotation until Glasnow and/or Taillon arrive.

If you replace Locke and/or Morton, then you’re not really improving on the rotation depth. You’re just replacing them at the start of the year with options that might be better. It might sound good to replace them with a reclamation project. However, as I pointed out the other day, the Pirates don’t really have enough to add a reclamation project on top of all the other off-season moves they need to make. And really, having Locke/Morton in the rotation for half a season won’t prevent the Pirates from winning, as they’re legit MLB starters who would belong in most rotations.

Beyond the 2016 season, or at least the first half, the hope is that the Pirates would have that Dream Rotation full of top of the rotation guys. They’ve got Gerrit Cole under team control through the 2019 season. Francisco Liriano is under contract for two more years. Glasnow and Taillon should join those two this season, and both have top of the rotation upside. Nick Kingham has the upside of a strong number three starter, and could factor in the mix beyond 2016. Then there are all of the other interesting rotation options like Brault, Kuhl, Williams, and others below the Triple-A level at the start of 2016 who could be long-term starting options in the majors.

The key here is with Glasnow and Taillon. If they work out, the Pirates could start the 2017 season with four guys who would classify as number one or number two starters, and that’s not considering who they might sign as a free agent this off-season. When Liriano leaves, the Pirates would still have the big three (Cole/Glasnow/Taillon) under team control for two more seasons, followed by three more years of Glasnow/Taillon. If all goes well, the Pirates are projected for at least two top of the rotation guys (#1-2 starters) in their rotation through the 2022 season.

  • I can’t help but wonder what Cole will cost in his arb years and will we pay him or trade him?

    • Lol. $64,000 question. Or 20 million.

      That’s why jackasses like me wanted them to spend recently, lee. While he was making 531k.

  • Why are you talking about Morton as if his 2013-15 performance is representative of how he’s been recently? As if he’s basically been the same pitcher through out that 3 year span? He hasn’t. He wasn’t nearly the same pitcher in 2015 as he was in 2013 and 2014 and was more than 3 lousy starts at end of season. His FIP in July was 5.47, his FIP in September was 5.64. He only made 2 starts in May. That basically means almost HALF of his year broken into segments was HORRIBLE. He never had a month near that bad in 2013 or 2014. Morton was quite good as a #4 in 2013 and 2014 I would agree with that. He was not a good #4 pitcher in 2015. His hard contact percentage was nearly 31% a big step up from 2013 or 2014. This wasn’t simply bad luck on BABIP. He was awful vs lefties after being decent vs them in 2014. He was bad vs lefties in 2013 but the difference then was that he was dominant vs righties- that was not the case this year.

    One can talk about homeruns per 9 going up but his Xfip was still very bad in July and September. I see no evidence this is same pitcher from previous 2 season.

    • Maybe because recency bias is no way to project future performance?

      • Morton wasn’t the same pitcher in 2015. And it wasn’t just “3 starts”

      • If you just want to talk about ERA his ERA of 4.81 ranks 103 out of 119 pitchers who pitched 120 innings. An ERA of 4.18 would till rank 83rd. And it’s silly to take away bad starts. How much better would Joe Kelly, Porcello or Harang be if you take away 3 bad starts. He wasn’t a good #4 pitcher this year.

        • But that’s not how it works.

          Performance can vary from year to year without necessarily meaning a player is different, for better and worse.

          Charlie Morton struck out about as many hitters as he usually does, walked about as many hitters as he usually does, and his stuff was about the same as it has been.

          You can want to replace him with a better pitcher. That’s more than understandable. But Tim’s analysis was not flawed for using a larger sample size. Quit the opposite, in fact.

      • It’s just as much a fallacy to dismiss last year’s performance as it is to overweight it.

        For example, the stabilization point for SLG against is 550 AB. Batters had 506 AB against Morton last year and slugged .429, compared to .344 and .349 the previous two years. Even though 506 < 550, you could add 44 more AB with zero hits and his SLG against would still be .394.

        So which one is the real Morton? The stabilization point research suggests that it's a toss-up at this point.

        • Who dismissed last year’s performance, Erik?

          • You did. John weighted 2015 more than the previous years, which you dismissed as “recency bias”. With proper sample sizes, looking at the last year actually can be more predictive than looking at the last 3 years.

        • Toss up might be exaggerating. Seems less than 50/50 that last years SLG is as predictive as the two years before that. And that ignores that much of his game was similar as NMR pointed out. K rate, BB rate, etc was fine.

          • Maybe the most instructive part of his year was what happens when you put a contact-oriented ground ball pitcher in front of a pretty awful infield defense.

            Extra outs turn into extra chances, and extra chances against a guy like Morton means extra lefties.

            I personally think it was just a lost year. Tried coming back too quickly, got seriously f’d up when they tried to change his arm slot while rehabbing, and just never got comfortable in his mechanics. That’s a difference maker for a high maintenance pitcher.

            • A lot, and I do mean a LOT, of his bad outings seemed to be precipitated by a botched play or less than stellar defense behind him. Again, you’re correct it seems, that with a contact-oriented pitcher who lives and dies on inducing that contact…more at bats means more potential issues.

    • For whatever reason the Pirates seem enamored by Charlie’s stuff. They seem to think he is a number three starter or better, and I doubt highly that he is going anywhere. To a degree I understand where that comes from. He has had great stuff when he has been on. It sure seems like a long time, though, since he has been on.

      You could do worse than Charlie as your 4th or 5th pitcher, preferably 5th. Right now he’s your 3rd. That’s what scares me.

      • If “they think he is #3 starter or better” its really weird how they consistently keep putting 3 guys ahead of him in the rotation and paying guys to show up and be ahead of him

        • I agree I didn’t say that all that well. I just mean the way they talk about him and the way they extended him. They seem to have more faith in him than I would given his tremendous inconsistent play.

          • They extended him because there’s no way they get a better pitcher for less money, especially at the time of their decision.

            What he’s making is essentially minimum wage for veteran free agent pitchers. You’re not going to find anyone more than a million bucks or so cheaper unless they’re purely a reclamation project.

            You may not like paying Morton that much on a club with this payroll, and that’s completely reasonable to me. But the extension represented the best they could do at a position of need.

            • Maybe. Maybe not. I truthfully don’t recall what was available when Morton was extended. It’s neither here nor there anyway. The point of my post was that I don’t think the Pirates are getting rid of him because I think they like his stuff.

              Whether Charlie is a good “value” at $8 million or not is debatable. I think the kindest thing you can say about Charlie Morton is that he has been hugely inconsistent since he has been a Pirate. What isn’t debatable is that he is not the second best starting pitcher on the team. He currently is the second highest paid starting pitcher on the team. That seems unusual since everyone seems to think he is nothing better than a four starter.

              • Well, no matter what was available it wasnt going to only cost 5-8 million on a multi year deal and be clearly better than him. Anyone only demanding that much is gonna have major flaws.

                Charlie isnt good or bad value at 8 million unless he starts taking steps backwards in WAR and his overall numbers. As far as who is paid what, that seems to knock the team for having Locke and Cole on rookie deals. Before AJ retired, Morton was 3rd highest paid with 2 rookies on the team.Logically fine.

                • Whatever you say. We both agree that Charlie isn’t a number 3 starter. If he pitches like he did at the end of last year he isn’t a 4 or 5 either. Hopefully he bounces back and whatever faith the Pirates have in him ends up being justified.

              • And that’s the rub in going to free agency for starters (any starting player, really). Your arb guys are obviously going to be cheaper and provide better value because their cost is inherently lower than market value.

                Saying you don’t like giving Morton $8m is saying you don’t like paying for pitching in free agency unless you get a steal. Understandable, just not always practical.

          • Super inconsistent and tough to watch at times. If he made any more than 8 million, id be unhappy with his deal. He’s right at the point of too much money for me, but 8 million for him isnt bad.

            Its not excess value, but blah.

      • I recall numerous times this season – even late, during his awful stretch – thinking, “I can’t believe that guy hit that pitch so freaking hard.” You could look at many instances where he had superb movement on his pitches and was hitting his spots fairly accurately and was still getting shelled (not an issue with defense). That, to me, indicates he’s simply been too easy to see for some reason.

    • A lot of pitchers are bad if you remove their good outings and focus only on the bad ones.

      • Who is doing that? I’n not focusing exclusively in his bad outings. I AM saying that his struggles went well beyond his final 3 starts of the season. He had an awful juky and a hard contact percentage near 40 percent that month. He was good in august and pretty good in June. But that still means he was pretty bad almost half the 2015 season. His valleys were never this low in 2013 or 2014.

  • While the Pirates have problems getting to four or five dominant starters, the Cubs have questions about their rotation? Where’s their next ace? Lester had no luster given his BIG contract. And did we begin to see the real Jake Arrietta in those last two starts, after he aced the Pirates? He looked very ordinary in his last two post season starts! That genius manager, Maddon, may have pitched his arm out what with the way he throws, behind himself and across his body?

    The Cards? They had all the pitching trouble in 2015 you’d want, especially with young guy pitching way beyond their former innings totals. How many of those arms will continue to slide in 2016?

  • Really enjoying these recaps.

    A kid who hasn’t pitched competitively in two years and one who very clearly has command and secondary pitch issues to figure out simply are not comfortable options to back up Morton, Locke, and “insert lower mid-tier free agent” on aa division contender with questionable defense and average offense.

    They just aren’t.

    The Pirates will need a lot, a loooot to break right in order for this group to push them past the Cubs and Cards, but that’s mostly the unfortunate reality of their situation in general. Credit them for at least giving themselves options, but I wouldn’t convince myself they’re necessarily good or safe ones. Not when talking baseball pitchers.

    • Every club has arms break. I get that. But where it changes from club to club is the resources they can use to fix it.

      Plus, crap like this can cause you to overpay, both in cash and prospects out of necessity.

    • I would love to see them start the year with 4 SP before they need to choose between Locke and Morton for #5. If Taillon and/or Glasnow force their way to Pittsburgh, that’s a great problem to have and an easy one to solve.

      • As would I, and I’ll disagree a bit with Tim about how adding a second starter wouldn’t improve on rotation depth. Teams routinely carry a pseudo-6th starter as the long man in the pen, including the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bumping Morton to the pen might actually help him stay healthy, and he’d clearly benefit from seeing less lefties. Bumping Locke to the pen could allow his stuff to play more out over the plate, and ultimately I think he ends up a reliever anyways.

        Probably couldn’t expect either to bounce back into the rotation after more than a couple months, but that also might be all you need.

        I don’t believe this second guy comes through free agency, but through trade FWIW.

        • Last year they got lucky and barely needed a starter beyond their #5. But that’s not the norm. If you assume the 5 guys with the most games started are 1-5, (not considering who actually started the year in the rotation), This is how many GS they got from guys 6+
          2015: 20
          2014: 33
          2013: 37
          2012: 35
          2011: 24

          And for kicks, here’s the 2015 playoff teams:
          Stl: 19
          Chi: 23
          LA: 32
          NYM: 19

          Obviously, this is an imperfect measure, because it doesn’t take into account The Plan vs. What Actually Happened, e.g. Wainright only making 4 starts. But the gist is that you’re gonna need about a seasons worth of starts from someone else, and if you have depth, these starts can come from a competent SP who won’t kill your chances of winning, or some AAAA guy or waiver wire pickup.

    • Tangent: in my dreams, the rotation to start the year is Price, Cole, Liriano, Happ, and Locke. Those 4 lefties would give them a nice advantage against the Cubs and Cards.

    • Watch Chad Kuhl be the Pirates best rookie pitcher this year. Wouldn’t that be funny… I still think Taillon will be up by July and pitch to a 3.50 ERA in the second half with 8.0+ K/9. Best case scenario is the Bucs finishing the season with Taillon and Glasnow as the 4th and 5th starters. I still want them to sign Samardzija. Every major outlet seems to think the Pirates and Doug Fister are a match made in heaven.

      • I think the Pirates and Dough Fister are a good match too. Consider: his major setback has been his decline in gb%…the Pirates are very, very good (or at least have been) at getting that gb% increased.

        • I just saw mlbtr has pirates getting Mat Latos. If they could fix him I think he has a lot of upside. Fisters fb velocity has been down but I see he didn’t receive a QO.

          • The lack of the QO if significant I think. Latos I just dont see because I have concerns about whether he has any interest at all in being worked on/altered. His attitude has not been the best according to “reports”…who knows.

        • His major setback was a decline in velocity.

    • I agree with NMR. To me there isn’t any reason to see Tallion or Glassnow as certain call-ups let alone “upgrades.” Hell Tallion was expected to be major league ready two years ago and it hasn’t worked out for him yet.

      Both pitchers may be called up this year and both may eventually be ace pitchers, but I don’t think it’s a given that either makes a significant impact in 2016. In fact I wouldn’t expect much from either until 2017 at the earliest.

      That said I can live with it if they sign one competent MLB pitcher like Happ. I’d prefer they sign two. I pretty much had the same opinion about the rotation last year. I was disappointed that they only signed AJ to the staff. They ended up winning 98 games, so what do I know.

      • I agree with all that. The expectations on all their young guys, bats included, is getting out of hand.

        • Yep. Marte and Polonco were rated as better prospects as Bell, Hansen or Dias in their day and both have struggled in the majors to one degree or another. I doubt very much that Bell Hansen or Dias will break into the majors with the bang that many prognosticators predict here. I hope they do but we will have to wait and see

        • Don’t forget that Huntington is also expected to continue out classing all of baseball in quality and quantity of his “value” moves.

          It’s certainly a compliment for folks to think all this, and its not even undeserved. But I still personally get the feeling that *expecting* all that is a bit much to out on them prospects/GM. Especially now that the bar for success is literally as high as it gets.

          We’re not talking about getting a 72 wim club into the playoffs anymore.

          • Again, this is all exactly right (or it seems to me it is).

            I think the Pirates should continue to look for value moves (and obviously value in general), but they’re going to have to get more creative because, put simply (as you did), the risk is quite high to think, let alone expect, in-season rookie call-ups to be the big difference makers for a team. That just does not traditionally happen and carries a ton of risk.

            The Pirates are going to have to get creative. They will probably need to shed the three high salary players (Walker, Pedro, and Melancon) and replace with less expensive players so they can shift some funds into other positions. I understand that Neil Walker still has value, but I think we can use the funds to get even more value elsewhere (but we also might find a way to keep Walker until the deadline at least). Again, the Pirates are going to need to be creative, but I think it can be done and see us bring in the necessary pieces (whether we actually DO is another story).

            I would throw out something similar to the following:
            -Sign Doug Fister (2-years, $22M, 3rd year option for $13M)
            -Re-Sign JA Happ (2-years, $22M, 3rd year option for $9M)
            -Re-Sign Joe Blanton (2 years, $7M)
            -Sign Chad Qualls (2 years, $7M, $4M 3rd year option)
            -Win Bid/Sign BH Park, $12M bid (4-years, $28M)
            -Trade Melancon ($11M savings)
            -Trade/Non-Tender Pedro ($8M savings)
            Total Payroll Added: $29M+Park ($10M average with bid average)
            Total Payroll Deducted: $19M
            Grand Total Payroll Added: $20M (with Park’s bid included/averaged)
            Payroll Estimate: $116.5M Opening Day (14.5% more than 2015 year end payroll)–estimated both.

            Starting Rotation:
            Cole, Liriano, Fister, Happ, Morton
            Watson, Hughes, Caminero, LaFromboise, Qualls, Blanton, Locke
            Polanco, Marte, McCutchen, Park, Kang, Walker, Cervelli, Mercer
            Stewart, Morse, Harrison, Ngoepe, Broxton (No lefty on the bench)

  • Obviously Glasnow has tremendous upside, maybe more than any other pirates pitching prospect. However, in 4 season in the minors, he has only one stretch where his control was not an issue, last year at Altoona. His BB/9:

    2012: 4.0 (Rookie/Low A)
    2013: 4.9 (A)
    2014: 4.3 (High A/AFL)
    2015: 3.5 (A/AA/AAA)

    While it’s encouraging that he’s been improving each year, and I do think it’s likely he will get there (he’s only 22), he’s not there yet. He might need another full season to get where he needs to be. I think too many people are expecting him to contribute too soon.

  • If Bullington and Van Benschoten could just get there with Burnett and Benson, we’ll be allright.