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.
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.