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

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.

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  1. I think the term “salary dump” should be reserved for those cases where a player is performing to expectations, but is traded or released only to reduce salary costs, something like the Aramis Ramirez trade to the Cubs. The Liriano trade was initiated solely because of his performance. If Liriano had performed in 2016 as he had in 2015 there is no way the Pirates would have traded him. The Liriano trade wasn’t a salary dump, it was a player cut due to poor performance.

    • Go ahead and find us all the three-year contracts out there that don’t ever have a player performing poorly over a several-month span. If you’re going to panic that quickly, you should never sign a guy past two years in the first place. Probably why you rarely see moves like the one the Pirates just made.

      • I glad that moves like the Liriano trade are rare, may they ever be so! But replacing Liriano with Nova in the rotation was a huge upgrade this year. And maybe next if they resign him.

  2. I’d like to see them aggressively go after Brett Anderson. He fits their profile as a ground ball pitcher, would give them a lefty to mix with the surplus of right handed options and if he stays healthy could be a solid #3. He might be had for a two year deal relatively cheap given his 2016 and history of injuries. He and Nova signed would make their rotation feel much better.

  3. “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.”…


  4. One thing not mentioned in the article is the time spent on the DL by Cervelli, Stewart and Diaz. Not using it as an excuse for the poor SP performance, or for NH’s winter of our discontent, but clearly the circumstances were not ideal for the SP’s to meet expectations for a significant portion of the season.

  5. Did we forget about Nick Kingham…? I know we shouldn’t expect a Taillion-like recovery from TJ, but he looks to be at least a Sept call-up if his comand stays in tact. I would slot him as a solid #4 starter with the potential to reach a 3 or 2 spot with the Pirates. Worst case, a mid-season call-up w/ Keller in 2018, assuming of course that Keller continues to progress close to his 2016 level.

    • I actually believe he could be depth option much sooner than next September if he doesn’t have a setback. Something like mid-June.

    • I’ve got him as a second half option, but was mostly focused on the early season depth for 2017. He’d factor into the post-2017 mix more than 2017, as I think his impact next year would be similar to Brault, rather than a Taillon or Kuhl type of boost.

  6. The approach the PBC took with the starting rotation for 2016
    was inexcusable. Signing reclamation projects to bridge the gap until top prospects arrive obviously failed. Not only were the reclamation projects ineffective, the prospects generally were mediocre at best (except for Tallion). As NH always says–you never have enough pitching, so to rely on projects and prospects rather than acquiring a real major league starting pitcher led to the demise of the Pirates in 2016.

    • You’re only half right. Yes, the Pirates plan to have two top of the rotation studs and 3 placeholders, bolstered by a strong and deep bullpen failed. But the primary reason it failed is the performance/injuries of Liriano and Cole.

      Actually, the sudden and dramatic drop in Cutch’s performance would be another bigger reason for missing playoffs than back of rotation sub par performance.

      • Nothing Cutch did or didn’t do in 2016 had more impact than the failed thinking that a conglomerate of Niese, Nicasio, Locke and Vogelsong could “hold” the team until rookies took their places.

        The 2016 season was doomed before it began.

        • I’m inclined to agree, but the language is a tad hyperbolic. It was a low-upside plan that left less room for error than you want from low-upside plans. There were plenty of ways it could have worked out and the Pirates would have hosted the WC. Heck, they were 29-21 through May 30, after what should have been the scariest part of the plan.

          But there were also too many ways it could have gone toes up. Niese not bouncing back from a bad 2nd half of 2015. Niese having back, shoulder or knee troubles, as he has before. Locke’s new windup not working. Vogelsong continuing to be awful. Nicasio reminding everyone why he was dropped from Colorado’s rotation 2 years ago. Taillon being rusty or running out of gas. Glasnow not having command. Kuhl being exploited by lefties. And that’s before you even consider Cole’s previous DL stints or Frankie’s having lost his effectiveness twice before.

          What happened was unfortunate, but unfortunately it was also well within the realm of possible outcomes.

        • Try checking the facts before forming your opinion. Here the are the 2016 win/loss records for your review:
          Locke: W 10 L 7
          Niese: W 8 L 6
          Nicasio W 10 L 7
          Vogelsong W 3 L 7
          Totals for the pitchers you despise: W 30 L 28
          Cole: W 7 L 10
          Liriano W 6 L 11
          Totals for the expected ” top two”: W 13 L 21
          Scott K’s point is well taken. Had the top two performed anywhere near expectations, say W 21, L 13 instead of W 13, L 21, the Pirates end of season record would have been W 86, L 75 essentially tied with St. Louis just out of the post season. But add a change Cutch’s lousy 2016 WAR to a normal Cutch year and they would have hosted the Wild Card game. The sub expectations performance of Liriano, Cutch and Cole is what destroyed the Pirates season. Thinking otherwise is just fantasy.

            • Way to totally miss the point. All of Locke, Niese, Nicasio and Vogelsong deserved to be removed from the rotation this year and should not be considered for the 2017 rotation. But they weren’t the cause for the Pirates missing the playoffs, as you say. It was the failure of the Pirates “big guns” that lead to the season’s demise.

    • Ironically i feel like the approach they took last offseason with the rotation might be the best approach to this offseason. I shudder at the thought of giving any free agent starter in this winters class a long term deal but taking one year fliers on lincecum, brett anderson, and/or hisashi iwakuma and waiting til next year to give a 3-4 year deal to someone like jason hammell, nathan eovaldi, lance lynn or henderson alvarez makes more sense to me in a long term view of things. Just need to make sure you get 2 or 3 guys this offseason on one year deals to create 4 or 5 options for the last two spots in the rotation to foster healthy competition.

  7. When Sandy Koufax came to the majors he could not find home plate with any of his pitchers. When he was asked what he needed to improve he said control. Well he eventually harnessed his stuff with both control and command. This took awhile but he did it. Now your asking yourself how did this old Dodger fan get on this site by mistake, well I point this out because Glasnow has the stuff to dominate and what he needs is control. If the control ever arrives, he might not be Koufax, but he will be alarmingly good. All we have to do is give him a chance instead of giving him away in a trade for little in return.

  8. Interesting you mention Coles problems for next year but a better outlook in 2018-2019. Should we expect him to be limited or gone for 2017? If he is limited or out for a long period of time 2017, does that change the Pirates approach in 2017 from attempting to build a contender to rebuilding yet again?

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