Pittsburgh Pirates: Can the starting rotation repeat last season

Rookie sensation Gerrit Cole (Photo courtesy Peter Diana- Post Gazette)

Rookie sensation Gerrit Cole (Photo courtesy Peter Diana- Post Gazette)

Last season the Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitching played a big role in the teams magical playoff run, but with spring training fast approaching, their is some question marks with the rotation’s strength.

With no additions to a mediocre offense, Pittsburgh will once again have to depend on its starting rotation to get the Pirates into the post season.

Pitching was not issue last season with the depth in the minors and breakout performances by so many. There are a few concerns that linger when it comes to some of the 2014 starting pitching candidates that could affect Pittsburgh’s playoff chances.

Francisco Liriano was truly the comeback story of 2013, and he will be expected to be the ace of the Pirates rotation in 2014.  The veteran left-hander has not always found success in the past. He can sometimes be rather erratic, but he has always had outstanding stuff. Liriano began last season on the shelf with a broken arm, but he dominated from his first start in May. He seemed to have better command and his fastball averaged 93, slightly less than in his younger days.  His slider was extremely effective and he threw it over a third of the time.  Liriano went 11-4, 2.16 in May through July.  He fell off a little in August going 4-2, 3.62  and 1-2, 5.14 in September. Pittsburgh turned to its ace in the biggest game in over 20 years, the NL Wild Card game, where he dominated the Cincinnati Reds.

Last seasons rookie phenomena  Gerritt Cole was everything the Pirates hoped for and more. He went 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 117.1 IP, 2.1 BB/9, 7.7 K/9. Cole’s fastball typically averages 95-96 MPH but occasionally it registers 100. Things really came together for the rookie pitcher in September and  in five starts, he went 4-0, 1.69, with a 1.06 WHIP and 11.0 K/9. In Game 2 of the NLDS Cole stepped up without hesitation and dominated the Cardinals, who led the series 1-0. He shows no fear is very competitive. Cole pitched 185 innings last season so taking on a heavy workload in 2014 should not be too much of a problem for the 23-year-old right-hander.

Charlie Morton received a three-year contract extension over the winter and appears to be a fixture in the Pirates rotation for at least the next few years. The right-hander has encountered his share of troubles over the years, but Pittsburgh’s front office has stuck by him and it appears to be paying off. Morton returned last June after Tommy Johns surgery and pitched reasonably- well. In August, he may have been considered the teams best started. Morton even overcame struggles he often faces against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS, despite taking the loss. He posted 7-4-record with a 3.26 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 116.0 IP, 2.8 BB/9, 6.6 K/9. He also had the highest groundball rate of his career (62.9%),  and the highest K rate of his career. Morton led the NL with 16 hit batsmen, which is his biggest issue.

After Liriano, Cole and Morton the Pirates have some question marks with the pitcher filling the fourth and fifth starting roles.

A.J. Burnett still has not announced a decision about retirement, but the chances of a return appears to be grim. The 37-year-old-veteran was a valuable piece to the Pirates rotation last season. Replacing him will be difficult. Burnett was a huge part of the Pirates success over the last two season both on and off the field.

Wandy Rodriguez was a solid pitcher in the little the Pirates have seen of him but health is a question for this veteran. The left-hander only made 12 starts with Pittsburgh last season before suffering an elbow injury in June. According to the Tribune-Review’s Rob Biertempfel, Rodriguez is making significant progress as he has started throwing again. The Pirates expect him to be ready for spring training. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, he has posted a 3.66 ERA in 138 innings. If healthy, Rodriguez could be what the Pirates need to get into the post season but his health is the one question that lingers when you mention his name.

Jeff Locke got off to a red-hot start in the first half of last season. The 26-year-old even earned an All-Star nod, but was unable to participate due to a back injury.  Some question whether the injury plagued the left-hander over the second half of the season when his numbers plummeted. He had a 7.25 ERA over his final 10 starts. He finished the season 10-7 with a 3.52 ERA, but  Control was a huge issue for Locke last season, even in his successful first half where he was able to overcome that. The question for the Pirates will be can Locke return to the pitcher Pittsburgh saw over the first half of the season? Maybe it was an injury that plagued him, considering he threw more innings than he ever had in his young career. Locke is no guarantee in 2014. In fact, he is a waiting game.

Many fans wonder if Edison Volquez will be the next Jonathan Sanchez. Ray Searage is a good pitching coach but not a miracle worker.  The Pirates have had a knack for taking struggling pitchers and getting use out of them, but Volquez was terrible in 2013. In 33 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, he had an ERA of 5.71, which included 142/77 K/BB ratio. Unlike Liriano, control was a big issue for this right-hander. The 2012 season Volquez saw similar struggles with the San Diego Padres posting a 4.14 ERA and a 174/105 K/BB ratio. His only real good season was in 2008 when he posted a 3.21 ERA and a 206/93 K/BB ratio with the Reds. That doesn’t look to promising for the Pirates.

Brandon Cumpton went 2-1 while posting a 2.05 ERA , 1.01 WHIP and 22/5 K/BB ratio over 30 2/3 innings last season with the Pirates. The young right-hander made a strong impression in four starts. He throws around 89-93, but his command of his fastball and breaking ball has been inconsistent. With a strong spring training could find himself on the roster opening day most likely in a bullpen role, where he may be better suited. However, he will likely start the season in Indianapolis, but if any injuries arise, Cumpton would be a solid call-up candidate.

Along side Cole,  Jameson Taillon is clearly the future of Pittsburgh. When MLB.com released its top ten right-handed pitching prospects on Wednesday, Taillon was fifth on the list. He will likely start the season in Triple-A Indianapolis. Even Cole couldn’t make the roster in 2013 with a strong spring showing.  Last season in 6 appearances with the Indians, the right-hander went 1-3 with a 3.89 ERA. Also, he tossed five scoreless innings in his lone playoff appearance. Taillon received in an invite to spring training, but he won’t head north with the team. Fans shouldn’t worry, Taillon may be with the Pirates before seasons end if he keeps heading in the right direction.

While Pittsburgh has many question mark as far as starting pitchers go this upcoming season, the future is clearly bright with Morton getting an extension and the future stars like Taillon, Nick Kingham, Luis Heredia and Tyler Glasnow alongside Cole.

Unless the Pirates get some big time production from question mark players and positions, this years rotation may not be enough to carry them into the post season in a tough NL Central. Pittsburgh has some question marks when it comes to the fourth and fifth starters, but if some of these pitchers stay healthy and pitch to par, the Pirates could be in for another fun season.

 

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