A few days ago the Pirates were linked with soon-to-be Dodger Brandon McCarthy. While this news came out after the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano and it’s possible the Pirates were interested in Liriano or McCarthy, it would be smart of the team to look to acquire another starting pitcher. As currently projected, the Pirates rotation would consist of:
- Gerrit Cole
- Francisco Liriano
- A.J. Burnett
- Vance Worley
- Jeff Locke
Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham, Clayton Richard, and Brad Lincoln would serve as immediately available depth, as both Charlie Morton and Jameson Taillon will likely begin the season with injuries that prevent them from pitching to start the season. It also seems foolish to bet on the ability of Morton to make it through an entire season without missing at least some time due to injury, excluding the time he’s sure to miss at the beginning of the season. Taillon, ramping back up from Tommy John surgery, won’t be available for some time to begin with as the Pirates are sure to be cautious with him, and once he does return he’ll probably pitch for an extended period of time in AAA, only appearing in the majors in the event of an emergency or during the final part of the season. It’s also probable that at least one or two of the Pirates other starting pitchers will be injured at some point in the season and need to be replaced. Another issue is ineffectiveness. It’s possible that a starter might struggle and the team will feel they need to fill that rotation spot with a better option.
Fangraphs.com depth charts list the Pirates rotation as 16th in projected Wins Above Replacement from starting pitchers (8.8), tied with the Texas Rangers. It projects the following totals
|Gerrit Cole||174 Innings Pitched||3.63 ERA||2.2 WAR|
|Francisco Liriano||169 Innings Pitched||3.59 ERA||2.4 WAR|
|A.J. Burnett||169 Innings Pitched||4.05 ERA||1.6 WAR|
|Vance Worley||160 Innings Pitched||4.08 ERA||1.2 WAR|
|Jeff Locke||113 Innings Pitched||4.22 ERA||0.6 WAR|
|Brandon Cumpton||55 Innings Pitched||4.61 ERA||0.1 WAR|
|Charlie Morton||47 Innings Pitched||3.89 ERA||0.4 WAR|
|Jameson Taillon||38 Innings Pitched||4.07 ERA||0.3 WAR|
|Nick Kingham||28 Innings Pitched||4.58 ERA||0.0 WAR|
Obviously, it seems likely that Charlie Morton will pitch more than 47 innings, which should take innings away from the virtually replacement level Jeff Locke. The problem is that nearly all of the Pirates remaining options are replacement level. Should Charlie Morton be unable to return for longer than expected, or any other pitcher suffer an injury, the Pirates rotation will have two pitchers in it whose expected performance level will not help the team. Improving on the rotation would allow the Pirates to keep Jeff Locke as depth and bump every pitcher down a spot. When Charlie Morton returns the Pirates would then have to figure out their plans for their rotation, but it would be a good problem to have.
Any player projected to perform better than Jeff Locke this season should be considered an improvement on the fifth spot in the Pirates rotation. Once again using Fangraphs depth chart to estimate expected performance, any one of the following players would be a fit for the Pirates rotation, before you start to whittle down players based on presumed contract demands or other factors. It’s also important to note that the projections of each of these players should change marginally if that player were to sign in Pittsburgh. It’s also important to note that these are only free agent rotation candidates, and the list does not include any potential trade candidates the Pirates could explore.
|Max Scherzer||208 Innings Pitched||3.02 ERA||4.1 WAR|
|James Shields||214 Innings Pitched||3.62 ERA||3.2 WAR|
|Hiroki Kuroda||179 Innings Pitched||3.72 ERA||2.6 WAR|
|Josh Johnson||102 Innings Pitched||4.09 ERA||1.1 WAR|
|Jake Peavy||160 Innings Pitched||4.07 ERA||1.0 WAR|
|Edinson Volquez||166 Innings Pitched||4.62 ERA||0.8 WAR|
|Chad Billingsley||120 Innings Pitched||4.32 ERA||0.8 WAR|
|Kris Medlen||83 Innings Pitched||4.14 ERA||0.8 WAR|
Each of these starters represents a projected upgrade on Jeff Locke in the Pirates rotation. In narrowing the list down, it’s easy to rule out certain players. Kuroda won’t be a Pirate, as he’s repeated time and again that he’ll either re-sign with the Yankees, return to Japan, or retire. It’s also highly unlikely that Scherzer will be signing in Pittsburgh, due to his financial demands. Shields is more reasonable if the Pirates were searching for a higher tier starter, but it’s still unlikely he’ll end up in Pittsburgh. That eliminates the entire top tier of pitchers, leaving only reclamation projects and mediocre fifth starters. For 3/5 of the remaining starters, their biggest question marks are health. Medlen’s twice had Tommy John surgery, the last time in March of 2014. Any team signing him would have to be very wary of his medical reports. Billingsley’s recovering from a torn flexor tendon in his arm, an injury he too has suffered twice. Josh Johnson’s injury history is more complicated, and more extensive. The remaining two pitchers, Jake Peavy and Edinson Volquez, are innings eating fourth or fifth starters who’ll give you more in terms of innings, but sacrifice run prevention. If the Pirates seek an improvement on Jeff Locke and additional depth to their starting rotation, these are the best pitchers for the job.