The Pirates had an unusual season from their starting rotation. They had a rare season in terms of health, seeing very few injuries to their starting five. This led to them only needing seven starters during the season. And that number would have been six if they didn’t give Steven Brault a few starts in September.
Typically, when you only really need to use six starters in a season, it means your rotation had an outstanding year, both in health and performance. That wasn’t exactly the case for the Pirates.
While their starters were mostly healthy, none of them stepped up with big performances. The team leader in ERA was Trevor Williams, with a 3.96 ERA, and he wasn’t even in the Opening Day rotation. The team leader in FIP was Jameson Taillon at 3.48, although his ERA was inflated by a few poor outings late in the year. Gerrit Cole led the way with a 3.81 xFIP. None of those numbers approach top of the rotation performances.
On the flip side, the five regular starters all had an ERA of 4.44 or lower, an FIP of 4.46 or lower, and an xFIP of 4.61 or lower. The league average was 4.36 across the board. Only one starter was below that mark in each category.
That created the unique problem the Pirates had. They didn’t have anyone pitching their way out of the rotation (obvious Tyler Glasnow disclaimer to follow), but they also had five pitchers who were topping out at slightly better than league average. This led to the Pirates finishing with the 12th best rotation in baseball, when they needed a better result to make up for their bottom of the league offense.
The rotation wasn’t without its problems though. Tyler Glasnow started the year in the rotation, with the hope that he would finally figure everything out. He didn’t look like he was ready during Spring Training, but the Pirates gave him a shot. He didn’t look much better in the early part of the season either.
The biggest “injury” came when Jameson Taillon was diagnosed with testicular cancer. That put him out, and brought Trevor Williams in the rotation. When Taillon returned, Williams stayed in the rotation and Glasnow went to Triple-A.
The Pirates saw improvements from Glasnow in Triple-A, seeing his velocity increasing, and continued comfort with his new changeup. But when he was called up in September, he continued to struggle in the majors. Overall, he had a 7.89 ERA and a 5.37 xFIP.
Overall, the rotation wasn’t really a problem with this team. The problem was that the Pirates needed the rotation to be better in order to make up for much larger problems in other areas. They can only hope for similar health and a league average floor from most of their starters going forward.
The Pirates probably won’t get the same health they saw in 2017, and won’t see their major struggles limited to one pitcher. For that reason, they will need guys pitching better than league average, with a few top of the rotation guys, in order to contend. That is especially important when you consider that, while the offense could improve, it won’t be a top offense anytime soon. So the Pirates will need the pitching to lead the way.
They have candidates to be top of the rotation guys. Gerrit Cole has already been that pitcher. He was a top of the rotation guy from 2013-2015, putting up some of the better numbers in baseball from a starter. He fell off in 2016 during an injury filled season, and slipped further in 2017, with home runs killing him.
Jameson Taillon showed that he is capable of being a top of the rotation guy. He had a 3.38 ERA and a 3.43 xFIP during his rookie season last year. He started this year with a 3.31 ERA and a 3.94 xFIP before his cancer diagnosis, with a poor final start elevating those numbers. After that, his season was up and down.
Taillon returned in June, and for the next month he looked like a top of the rotation guy again, with a 1.98 ERA and a 3.43 xFIP. Things fell apart for him after the All-Star break, with a 7.68 ERA and a 4.19 xFIP. However, that was mostly due to 17 earned runs in 6.2 innings over two starts at the end of July and early August, along with nine earned runs in ten innings in two starts at the end of August. He bounced back in the month of September with a 3.25 ERA and a 3.78 xFIP.
The Pirates also have a potential top of the rotation guy in Tyler Glasnow, although he is far from guaranteed. He’s only 24 years old, so it’s not time to write him off just yet. But he’s also not a guy who the Pirates should count on as anything more than a bonus, and there should be some real concerns that he might not come close to his ceiling.
Between Cole, Taillon, and Glasnow, the Pirates have a good mix of pitchers who can be above average. One guy has done it consistently, and it’s not unreasonable to expect he can get back there. One guy has done it early in his career, just not consistently. One guy is a wild card with the stuff to get there, but control holding him back.
The problem is that they only have Cole for two more seasons before he is eligible for free agency. That would leave them with Taillon and Glasnow, plus help from the minors. They do have Mitch Keller making his way to the upper levels. He could arrive as early as the middle of 2018, and should arrive by 2019. Keller has top of the rotation stuff, and is a much safer bet than Glasnow. So the Pirates should still have two options in Taillon and Keller who have a good chance at top of the rotation stuff.
Beyond those four pitchers, the Pirates have plenty of depth. They have Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams under control for five more seasons. Steven Brault looks like he could start in the majors, and is currently projected as Triple-A depth again next year. Clay Holmes might have a shot at being more than a back of the rotation guy, but will start next year back in Triple-A. Nick Kingham could also arrive next year, and still has the upside of an MLB starter.
Then there are all of the guys who project as back of the rotation guys at best, or MLB relievers who are stashed in the upper levels. Tyler Eppler is part of that group, and likely starting back in Indianapolis. Brandon Waddell, JT Brubaker, Alex McRae, Austin Coley, and Tanner Anderson will all be moving up from Altoona.
Brault, Holmes, Kingham, Eppler, Waddell, Brubaker, McRae, Coley, and Anderson. That’s nine starters for five spots in Indianapolis next year. And that doesn’t count Glasnow, who could return to the level if there isn’t a rotation spot in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have already started moving some of their starters to the bullpen (Yeudy Garcia being the biggest one), but they’re going to need to make that switch with several pitchers in the upper levels next year, even if they trade some of them in the offseason.
The key thing here is that they don’t have a need for starters in general. It’s to the point where they could trade Ivan Nova and replace him with someone from Triple-A who could replicate his production at a much cheaper price.
What they do need are top of the rotation starters. They have that in Cole, Taillon, and maybe Glasnow and Keller in the future. But pitching is never guaranteed. There are injuries. There are unexpected poor performances. We saw that the last two years with Cole.
The Pirates could go into the 2018 season relying on Cole and Taillon, and hoping that Glasnow figures it out and Nova is more than league average. But they’d be smart to try and add another guy this offseason with the upside to be more than league average, since you can never have too many options, and since the risk of having too many good pitchers isn’t a real problem in baseball.