If you go to FanGraphs, and search for the qualified pitchers for the Pirates in 2016, you get zero results. That’s because the Pirates didn’t have a single starting pitcher who pitched the qualified amount of innings (around 160 or more) to show up on that chart. The guys with the most innings pitched for the Pirates this year were Jeff Locke (127.1) and Juan Nicasio (118). The guy with the most innings overall was Francisco Liriano (163), and about a third of his innings came with Toronto. The same could be said of Ivan Nova (162), who pitched a little over a third of his innings with the Pirates.
I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe the problems with the 2016 Pirates’ rotation in one paragraph.
Heading into the season, the expectation was that Locke and Nicasio would be placeholders, with the hope that they’d perform well enough until prospects like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl arrived. Instead, they ended up leading the team in innings, although a lot of the innings from Nicasio were in the bullpen, where he had much better results.
One of the guys they were relying on the most was Liriano, and he pitched like a replacement level guy with the Pirates, and was eventually salary dumped to the Blue Jays. The guy they got to replace him, Ivan Nova, was one of the best pitchers for the Pirates this year, with a 1.9 fWAR in the final two months. However, they didn’t get nearly enough of that level of pitching in the first four months.
Bad starting pitching was the theme of the 2016 season. It started with a bad approach in the off-season that left the final three rotation spots to Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and a battle between Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio. It got worse when none of those pitchers lived up to their low projections, meaning the Pirates got near-replacement level value from the entire group, and worse in some cases.
The reason for the approach was to wait on the prospects to arrive, and that became another problem when top prospect Tyler Glasnow wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Fortunately, Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl stepped up, ranking third and fifth respectively in fWAR on the team in just half a season of work. Taillon was one of the biggest bright spots, making a seamless transition over to the big leagues after Tommy John surgery and a hernia injury delayed his debut for two years. The Pirates also got additional starts from Steven Brault, who was replacement level in his time with the team, although that actually was an upgrade over most of the starters on Opening Day.
What really made things worse was that the two starters expected to lead the team both struggled. Gerrit Cole dealt with injuries, and while he didn’t have a bad year (3.33 FIP, 4.02 xFIP, 2.5 fWAR), it wasn’t close to what he did last year, when he looked like a top of the rotation starter. Meanwhile, Liriano struggled with the Pirates, posting a 5.28 FIP, 4.53 xFIP, and a -0.3 fWAR. This led to him getting salary dumped at the deadline, at which point he rebounded a bit, but not to pre-2016 levels.
Ivan Nova was one of the few bright spots, immediately turning things around after being acquired by the Pirates, putting up a 2.62 FIP, 3.13 xFIP, and a 1.9 fWAR in his two months with the team. The Opening Day rotation and the top prospects were expected to combine for 13.1 WAR at the start of the season. They ended up falling short of that by 5.2 fWAR, and that was even with Taillon and Nova giving an unexpected boost, as the pre-season projections didn’t have Taillon pitching so well, and didn’t account for a trade. Without those two, things could have surprisingly been much worse.
The future of the Pirates’ rotation is a question mark, even though they currently have a wave of prospects arriving in the majors. Jameson Taillon looks like he’s here to stay, showing very few issues in his jump to the majors. Chad Kuhl had some issues, needing a few adjustments along the way, but looks like he could be a back of the rotation starter for now.
There’s also Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams who will likely start the 2017 season in the minors, but could help during the year. Glasnow has the highest upside, but isn’t quite there yet. Brault and Williams profile as back of the rotation starters or relievers. The Pirates have a few other guys with that profile in Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, and Brandon Waddell, who could all be making the jump from Altoona at the start of the year.
There’s no question that the Pirates have a lot of young talent. The question lies with their ability to add some established players to that young core.
Gerrit Cole saw his production decline in 2016 after several injuries and three trips to the disabled list. The hope here is that he returns healthy next year, and gets back to being the top of the rotation pitcher he was before the 2016 season.
That would give the Pirates a good start to their rotation, with Cole and Taillon at the top, and Kuhl factoring into the mix at the back of the rotation. But they’re going to need at least one more established starter, whether that comes from bringing back Ivan Nova as a free agent, or adding someone via trade. They might even be able to bring in a reclamation project to pair with the established starter, adding more overall depth to the rotation throughout the year.
They got one guy who looks like a reclamation project in the Liriano trade, when they added Drew Hutchison. So far, he hasn’t done much work with Ray Searage, and we’ll get a full idea of what he can become in 2017. The Pirates seem to be giving him an inside track for a rotation job next year, but I don’t think it will be a bad thing to give him some competition with another reclamation project.
Long-term, I don’t think the rotation has as many question marks. While I have questions about whether Glasnow can reach his upside as a top of the rotation guy, I do think he could emerge as an MLB starter if he falls short of his projections. Mitch Keller could be on the fast track to the majors after his breakout season in 2016, possibly arriving by the middle of 2018 at the earliest. And while Cole might have injury questions for 2017, I don’t think they would still be an issue in 2018 and 2019. Add in all of the back of the rotation options, and the Pirates have a good mix of starters for the long-term.
They just need to answer the short-term question marks for 2017. Having a big off-season where they add one solid rotation option, and maybe a reclamation project with upside would go a long way to providing those answers.