Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pirates Opening Day Roster: The Starting Pitchers

The decisions made the last days of spring training aren't as clearcut as usual this year. There are still 28, maybe even 29 guys who could potentially make the Opening Day 25-man roster. And, according to GM Neal Huntington, the last few decisions may not actually be made until the morning of the first game--a clear attempt to try and increase the chances that those who have to clear waivers actually do. (While I don't actually believe this makes a difference, the general thought is that with so many players being waived, teams are more likely to stay with their own guys unless there is a clear and obvious upgrade. Toss your guys in with the masses and they are going to be less scrutinized. Like I said, I don't buy it. With the sophistication in today's front offices, nothing slides by, but there is no reason not to do it this way.) Earlier this week I wrote about the position players. Today, the starters.

Note: This is how I expect the Pirates to construct their rotation on OD.

Starting Pitchers (5): Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, Steven BraultDrew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow

I'm sure eyes immediately darted to the fifth starter spot. And while it is the least significant, most fungible of the five and is certain to be occupied by various players over the course of the season, it is the lightning rod topic for many fans. 

But let's start at the top. The Pirates 2016 OD rotation consisted of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio (who beat out Ryan Vogelsong in spring training). You get what you pay for. Out of 15 NL teams, the Bucs starters were 13th in innings pitched, 11th in ERA, 13th in WHIP, 13th in strikeouts and 9th in HRs allowed. Not good.

Every team in baseball had at least one starter give them 174.0 IP in 2016 except the Padres and the Pirates. Christian Friedrich gave the Padres a team-high 128.1 innings. Jeff Locke led the Pirates with 127.1 IP, but only 106.0 as a starter. Gerrit Cole led the team with 116.0 innings as a starter. By comparison the Cubs had five starters throw at least 165 innings and the Cardinals had four. If your starters throw as few innings as the Pirates starters, your season is, well, a non-starter. 

Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are the key to the Pirates relevance. The Pirates need to get 350+ top-level starter innings from the two to be a contending team. Key in on the K-rate for both. Cole struck out a career-low 19.4% of batters last year, a big drop from the 24% of each of the previous two seasons. He also posted career-high numbers in BB%, XBH% and LD% while only going more than six innings in six of 21 starts. Cole needs to stay healthy and find his 2015 form that saw him place fourth in NL Cy Young voting. 

Taillon was all the Pirates hoped for coming off two missed seasons. He showed excellent control, walking only 4.1% of batters faced and showed maturity, poise and pitching-sense that you don't often see in rookie pitchers. He threw 165 innings between AAA and the majors and if he can bump that up to 180-190 and continue to improve, the Pirates will be set at the front of the rotation.

In an ideal world Ivan Nova and Chad Kuhl would be your fourth and fifth starters. Nova basically replicated J.A. Happ's sensational 2015 performance when he came over from the Yankees at the trade deadline last year. For Nova, a RHP, going from Yankee Stadium to PNC Park in the last months before free agency was a winning lottery ticket. (Although I think everyone was surprised at the relatively cheap terms he agreed to with the Pirates.) His HR/FB ratio went from 15.1% with the Bombers to 4.5% with the Bucs. His walk rate went from a good 5.9% to an absurd 1.1% walking just three batters in 64.2 IP, and he went deep in games tossing three of the Pirates five complete games in just 11 starts. If he takes just a small step back from the 3.06 ERA (2.52 FIP) he posted with the team last year and does it over 30 starts, he will be the biggest bargain in this year's free agent class.

Lump Kuhl in with uber-prospect Glasnow, Brault, Hutchison**, Trevor Williams and eventually Nick Kingham as the Pirates young hopefuls. The team came to spring training looking to fill two rotation spots from this group, with the assumption Kuhl would get one. He did. The battle for the other has been the talk of spring training. Coming in I ranked them Hutchison/Brault, Glasnow, Williams. Halfway through camp I gave Hutchison the edge. In his first three appearances he went 9 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 9 K. The job was his if he didn't implode. Even after two terrible outings, if he had pitched well on Tuesday against Boston I still think he would have been the guy. Instead he gave up 10 hits and nine runs in 3.2 IP. In his last three outings he posted this: 11.2 IP, 27 H, 21 R, 6 BB, 9 K. That's incomprehensibly bad. He left the Pirates no choice, getting optioned to AAA Wednesday morning. 

(**Hutchison, through no fault of his own, wears the stigma of being the return in the Francisco Liriano deal. It was assumed by many in the fanbase and media that Huntington would give him the job to try to "save face" and justify the transaction even though he repeatedly said that would not be the case. Even if he had pitched well the shouts would have been that putting Hutchison in the rotation was a trade-justifying move. But instead Hutchison pitching terribly, screwing himself over. But, in some perverse way, he enhanced the view of Huntington with many fans/media. Huntington, rather than being criticized for acquiring a pitcher who doesn't appear to be of value, is now being praised for "trying to win" because he sent him to AAA. As ridiculous as it sounds, it's 100% true.)

The bigger surprise, with Hutchison performing so badly, was that Brault was optioned to AAA earlier this week. Brault has pitched reasonably well this spring and last year made seven starts with the Pirates while the other three rotation-contenders combined for six. He would provide the Pirates with a lefthanded starter in an otherwise all-righthanded rotation, a nice option at PNC park. It's still not clear to me why he is out of the running. But he is.

That leaves Glasnow and Williams. Obviously Glasnow is the prospect with the top of the rotation/ace ceiling while Williams' ceiling is more 4th/5th starter, situational bullpen/swing guy. Based on potential, the choice is obvous. But I'm convinced the Pirates would prefer Glasnow make 6-10 starts in AAA in order to continue working on his change up, continue getting comfortable with the 2-seamer, which he added back to his repertoire this spring, and work on controlling the running game. On top of that Williams has actually pitched better than Glasnow this spring and may give Bucs a better chance to win the first 6-10 times through the rotation. 

So which way does it go? To me it's a toss up. I'd probably go with Williams and let Glasnow dominate in AAA until May 15-June 1 and then bring him up assuming all goes as planned. I've said many times that Glasnow is the most significant piece/wild card to the Pirates playoff hopes the next couple of years. If he develops into a frontline starter, the Pirates rotation is set for the next 3-5 years and a good bet to repeat their 2013-15 playoff seasons. If not, there is a gaping hole.

If Glasnow can replicate what Taillon did last year, over 20-25 starts, I think the Pirates can be an 85-88 win team. If not, the Bucs are likely to be closer to the 2016 version. I'd still let him marinate in AAA for a 6-8 weeks, but I'm guessing the Pirates make him the 5th starter and the Glasnow Era begins Saturday, April 8 against the Braves at PNC Park.

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