BRADENTON, Fla. – I’ve never been in the group that thinks the Pirates are heading for a down year in 2016. True, they’re probably not going to win 98 games again, but how many teams sustain that type of success. I also think it will be difficult challenging the Cubs for the division, but isn’t winning the division supposed to be difficult? The idea that a team would only have a shot if their division was easy is something that seems to be left over from the days when the Pirates were losing, and the only conceivable way to imagine them ever winning the division is if they played in a division with nothing but Triple-A teams.
I’ve been high on the Pirates’ chances this year because I look at the offense, and I see a strong group, thanks to their focus on high OBP guys, and optimizing the lineup.
I see a bullpen that will return two of the best relievers in baseball, along with several guys who can hit upper 90s with their fastballs.
I see a top farm system that is about to spill over into the majors, with a few of the best prospects in the game, and a lot of other talented guys on both sides of the ball who can help in 2016.
I see a rotation that is headlined by Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, two of the top 30 starters in baseball last year.
But there was one flaw I saw, and everyone else saw as well: the rest of that rotation.
I was fine with the pickup of Jon Niese. He’s been a 2.0+ WAR pitcher for several years, and pitched that way in the first half last year, before struggling down the stretch with the Mets. He’s not a high upside guy, but he could be a dependable starter who puts up league average numbers over a full season, and that has value.
I’m also fine giving Jeff Locke one more chance. He’s been good in the first half each year, and struggles in the second half. If that trend holds up, then he’ll transition well to Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon at mid-season. But the Pirates have been working on his delivery this year, making it more simple with the aim for more consistent command. So maybe that leads to better results and more consistency than we’ve seen in the past. And really, Locke’s numbers as a starter the last three years, good and bad included, have been league average.
The problem I had was Ryan Vogelsong. I looked at Vogelsong, and best case, I saw a league average pitcher. And that’s not in the same way as Niese and Locke, where they were actually putting up close to league average numbers, while benefitting from being ground ball left-handers playing for the Pirates in PNC Park. This was a longer shot for Vogelsong.
I wrote many times this off-season that the Pirates needed more upside for the back of the rotation. Having guys like Niese and Locke is fine, especially since you’re only relying on them for half a season until the prospects arrive. But you need at least one classic Pirates reclamation project. They didn’t add Mat Latos, or anyone else who fit the bill. This is what I wrote about Vogelsong back in January:
I think he’d be a great fit for the current bullpen philosophy of having a lot of long relievers who could take over early for the rotation, as well as being the top depth option early in the season if a starter goes down. But that requires another starter to be brought in.
As it turned out, they already had that starter.
Juan Nicasio has looked great all throughout Spring Training. The numbers were obviously there, but the stuff was what really impressed. He worked 90-95 MPH with his fastball out of the rotation, showing great command of the pitch. He showed a difficult slider which saw improvements last year, and those improvements carried over to the current season. He worked on his changeup, and showed some promise there, possibly ending his struggles from the last few years against lefties.
Nicasio looks like your typical Pirates reclamation project. He’s got the stuff, which never worked out in the past. He’s made the changes that might be necessary for his stuff to work in Pittsburgh. In this case, one of the biggest things might be carrying a reliever mentality over to the rotation, and focusing on one inning at a time. It sounds a little clichéd, but that’s a real problem with some starting pitchers, where they get too caught up in the big picture of throwing over an entire start, rather than focusing on the many small sections that make up that start.
Would anyone be surprised if we reach mid-season and Juan Nicasio is being talked about as the steal of the off-season? He fits the Edinson Volquez/J.A. Happ mold of a guy who has never really had success, but where you look at the stuff and wonder why the success never came. Then the success arrives, and it all makes sense. The bonus here is that the Pirates control Nicasio through the 2017 season, so if this does happen, they’ve got a starter for more than just a year (or two months, in Happ’s case).
That would be great for the long-term rotation, especially when you consider that the 2017 season could ideally feature Cole, Liriano, Glasnow, and Taillon all pitching up to their upsides. Nicasio might have more upside than anyone else competing for a final spot, and would create a solid overall group if he does pan out like the reclamation projects who came before him.
But let’s scale it back and look at 2016. The truth is that the Pirates don’t need Nicasio to put up top of the rotation numbers like Volquez and Happ. They just need him to not be a back of the rotation guy like Vogelsong, Niese, and Locke. You add a solid middle of the rotation option to the current group, and consider the prospects who will arrive at mid-season, and the questions start disappearing about this section of the team. It’s not the Mets rotation, but when paired with all of the other good things going on with this team, you’ve got a rotation that can really help the Pirates contend.
The biggest mistake the Pirates made this off-season was going with Vogelsong as a starter in the rotation, rather than going for a higher upside guy. Today’s move wasn’t planned from the beginning, but from what I’ve seen of Nicasio this spring, it fixes the biggest mistake the Pirates made this off-season, and gives the classic Pirates reclamation project to watch in 2016.
**I will be starting the season previews this weekend for the Major League club, and we’re working on season previews for the four minor league affiliates (plus figuring out the roster situations), with those previews going up early next week. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you should do so before the season starts, so you don’t miss any of our coverage.