NEW YORK – Right after Curtis Granderson hit a lead off home run tonight, I clicked over to Baseball-Reference to see the last time the Pirates were below .500 this late in the season. It didn’t take long to find that team. The 88 win 2014 Pirates were 34-35 on June 16th, and didn’t get above .500 for good until June 26th.
I pointed this out on Twitter, and one of the responses was that the rotation in 2014 was much better than this group. That’s true if you compare the full season results in 2014 to the current results this year. But looking deeper at the rotation, that pitching staff had almost identical problems to the group this year.
Let’s start with Francisco Liriano. He had a 4.60 ERA through the middle of June in 72.1 innings, with a 4.5 BB/9 before going on the disabled list. This year he has a 4.92 ERA and a 5.45 BB/9, although there’s no sign that he will go on the DL.
Liriano returned from the disabled list in 2014 and put up a 2.40 ERA in 90 innings the remainder of the season.
Then there’s Gerrit Cole. He didn’t have bad numbers, with a 3.64 ERA in early June. He did go on the disabled list twice, and had a 3.44 ERA in 52.1 innings after he returned in late August. Cole is once again on the DL in mid-June, and hopefully the Pirates don’t rush him back like they did that year, as he’s been their only good pitcher.
That 2014 group had Jeff Locke, who actually didn’t look bad by mid-June, but had only made three starts due to injuries. They had Charlie Morton, who was pretty consistent throughout the year, only to struggle down the stretch. Edinson Volquez was a breakout guy, but didn’t really break out until the second half, with a 4.67 ERA after his start on June 18th. He had a 1.85 ERA in 111.2 innings after that. Vance Worley also came up and put up a 2.85 ERA from the middle of June to the end of the season.
The current back of the rotation has Jon Niese the closest to the Morton role, at least if you consider his results in the last month. Locke has been much worse this year. Nicasio was the hopeful breakout guy, but tonight’s start was more of a sign that he is better suited for the bullpen. And Jameson Taillon just came up, and it would be amazing if he could do what Worley did in 2014.
That 2014 group showed what the Pirates need in the second half, and it’s not a mystery. They need much better results from everyone. More importantly, the 2014 group showed it’s not impossible for guys to turn things around mid-season, after struggling early. But I don’t think we can bank on that happening with every Pirates starter this year.
You hope that this happens again with Francisco Liriano, since there’s honestly no way the Pirates give up on him as a starter at this point. You also hope that Cole returns and does well, and manages to improve his xFIP results. And as mentioned above, if Taillon can put up strong numbers the rest of the year, that would give the Pirates a big boost. The key here is Liriano turning things around. Hopefully his last outing (6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 8 K) was a sign of things to come.
I think Jon Niese could be a good starter down the stretch. His last start was bad, but even with that start, he had a 3.56 ERA and a 3.69 xFIP in his previous month. If he can continue putting up those numbers the rest of the season, the Pirates will be fine with his spot.
The problem area is with Locke and Nicasio. No matter where you fall on the “Which one should be removed from the rotation when Cole returns” argument, I think the clear answer is that both need to be replaced. The odds that one of them turns it around in the second half like some of the 2014 pitchers seems very slim.
Only one issue here: the Pirates don’t have anyone ready to step up and replace them. Chad Kuhl looked good for most of the season, but struggled in his most recent outings. Brian Peloza wrote about what has been going wrong for him lately in last night’s Prospect Watch. He has given up 12 earned runs and 24 hits in 13 innings over his last three starts.
Then there’s Tyler Glasnow, the center of a very divisive argument. Glasnow has an impressive ERA and strikeout total in Triple-A. The key there is that it is in Triple-A. There’s no guarantee that Glasnow will put up those numbers in the majors. In fact, it seems very unlikely that he will do that.
Glasnow currently needs to work on his changeup, because the pitch is very inconsistent. He also needs to throw his curveball for strikes early in the count. And he needs better command of his fastball, with his recent struggles leading to 11 walks in 15 innings.
Here is the problem with that combined package. Glasnow can’t throw the fastball for consistent strikes, leading to him getting behind. He can’t throw the curveball consistent for strikes to help bail him out, making the pitch only effective as a strikeout option. And he doesn’t have a changeup to fall back on. I see it mentioned all the time that guys like A.J. Burnett get by with two pitches and don’t need the changeup, but those guys could throw their breaking pitch for strikes.
Look at what Jameson Taillon has done so far in the big leagues. He’s been able to use his curveball early in counts, and late. He’s pitching off the fastball early and often, but he does have the ability to throw that curve for an early strike, or to help bring him back. Glasnow either needs to start doing that with his curveball, or he needs to improve the changeup. Otherwise, I think we could just see what we’re seeing from Nicasio — outstanding results when the fastball command is on, but when it’s off, he turns too much to his breaking pitch because he doesn’t have a good changeup, and the breaking pitch isn’t consistent enough to be used that often successfully.
The next argument is that Glasnow might not be ready, but that he would be better than Locke and Nicasio. This might be true. I say “might”, because it’s not a guarantee. Jose Berrios put up a great ERA and a lot of strikeouts in Triple-A, along with some control problems, only to absolutely bomb in the majors. Sean Manaea did the same thing, and he didn’t even have the control problems. I think there are two mistakes in play here. One is assuming strong results in Triple-A will automatically lead to certain success in the majors. The other is looking at prospect status, and thinking this means a player is ready whenever he gets close to the majors, without realizing that prospect status is all about long-term potential, and not immediate impact.
That’s the biggest issue here. For some reason, Triple-A is now viewed as this holding ground for top prospects until mid-June rolls around and teams can save money. No development is actually done at the level. Players just need to put in X amount of months and they’re ready to get called up and dominate, and if teams weren’t so cheap, players could get called up earlier with the same success.
I’m not a guy who is going to bullshit you on Super Two. It’s my job to give you honest opinions on players. I said Gregory Polanco didn’t look ready in 2014, and he wasn’t ready. I said Jameson Taillon looked ready a month ago, despite the Pirates saying he had things to work on. So why would I not be honest about Glasnow? We actually see the players. Last year this site spent $45,000 on live coverage of the system. Why would we do that to get the story behind the numbers, and then just ignore that story if it isn’t as feel-good as the numbers suggest?
As someone who has been following Glasnow closely for a long time, and has been looking forward to him arriving in the big leagues, I really want him to be ready. But he’s just not. He’s 22 years old, and in Triple-A. That’s a development level, where you get guys ready for the majors. Glasnow isn’t ready, and so he needs more time at the level to develop. He’s only 22, so it’s not a bad thing for him to get more work at the level right now.
If you look around baseball, you’ll see teams like the Orioles and the Tigers who constantly rush top pitching prospects to the majors, even if there are obvious flaws in their games. Those pitchers either never realize their potential, or they take several years to get there. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s also why the “Glasnow might not be ready, but he is better than Locke/Nicasio” argument is a bad one. Yes, he might be better, but that’s a low bar to set. And calling him up now might get you a small upgrade, but it might also hurt his development for the long-term. That’s what is at play here. Do you upgrade Nicasio/Locke to a small amount, while possibly sacrificing the best long-term arm this system has? The answer for me is “NO” every single time.
That still leaves the problem of the Pirates needing to replace Nicasio and Locke. There’s still time for Glasnow or Kuhl to get things figured out. Looking back a few years ago, Starling Marte was in a similar situation, where he was too inconsistent in June when Super Two passed, but was ready to come up in late-July after showing a lot of improvements in his final month. You hope that’s the case with the starters this year. Otherwise, the Pirates will need a trade to upgrade that final spot.
Of course, if Liriano doesn’t turn it around, and if Cole doesn’t return soon while healthy and productive, and if Niese doesn’t keep pitching like he has the last month, and if Taillon doesn’t have a successful debut, then it really won’t matter if it’s Locke or Nicasio or Glasnow or Kuhl or a trade in that final spot. The Pirates need a lot to go right in the second half with this rotation, and with the prospects who could potentially join them from Indianapolis.
**Pirates Prospects Job Openings in Morgantown and Bristol. We are looking for writers in Morgantown and Bristol this year.
**I’m heading to Chicago in the morning to cover the Pirates for their three game weekend series. I’ll also have an article on Jameson Taillon in the morning.
**Nicasio Struggles, But McCutchen Shows Positive Signs in Pirates Loss. I talked with Juan Nicasio about what went wrong tonight, and talked with Andrew McCutchen about what went right.
**Injury Updates: Starling Marte and Chris Stewart Out of the Lineup Tonight. The latest injury updates on Stewart and Marte.
**Prospect Watch: Garcia Throws Shutout Ball, Big Day From Newman in Bradenton Win. A good day throughout the system, also featuring home runs from Austin Meadows and Tito Polo, and a great outing from Clay Holmes.
**Draft signing news from the last two nights. Don’t forget to follow the Draft Pick Signing Tracker for all of the up-to-date bonus info.
- Pirates Sign First Round Pick Will Craig, Tenth Round Pick Matt Anderson
- Pirates Sign 13 Draft Picks, Including 2nd Rounder Travis MacGregor and 3rd Rounder Stephen Alemais
- Pirates Announce Nine Draft Pick Signings
**Minor Moves: Hughston Returns to West Virginia, Roth Sent to Morgantown. A few minor moves in the lower levels today.
**Austin Meadows Sets Curve Franchise Record; Starts Getting Work in Left Field. Sean McCool looks at the hitting streak from Austin Meadows (which was extended with a first inning home run tonight), and why he is moving to the corner outfield spots.
**Max Moroff Trying to Overcome Early Season Struggles. Brian Peloza looks at the inconsistent play from Max Moroff this season.