The Pirates do not have many holes to fill in their 2017 lineup, likely a bullpen arm or two, a backup shortstop, and a starter- preferably a good one. But even if the team adds a solid starter, the rotation still has some concerns to it.
The top two of the rotation is set for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are the two headliners. Cole, who is among the games best when healthy, had a rocky year in 2016 battling many different injuries. In fact, the 26-year-old right hander had a 2.94 ERA after his start against the Cincinnati Reds on August 7. He proceeded to start three more games, a 7.31 ERA, before being placed on the disabled list. In his last start of the season against Philadelphia, Cole lasted just two innings as he allowed five runs, and uncharacteristically walked four. When healthy, he is not a question mark, but having only one of three full seasons in the Major Leagues where healthy is rather concerning.
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Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jameson Taillon had an impressive rookie campaign, posting a 3.38 ERA, 124 ERA+, and 3.71 FIP. He featured incredible control, especially for a pitcher who had not pitched the prior two years. Among the 142 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Taillon’s walk percentage was just 4.1 percent. The former second overall pick also got his fair share of ground balls, a rate he got of 52.4 percent when the league average is 44.3 percent for starters. The large concern for Taillon is health and fatigue. After pitching for the first time in two years, 165.2 innings in 2016, how will he hold up and what is his limit?
The teams starting rotation is 40% filled up, not including the much-needed depth. Chad Kuhl currently lines up as the three starter in this starting rotation, which is problematic. The 24-year-old had an average rookie season, a 4.20 ERA, 100 ERA+, and a 3.95 FIP. He does not strike many hitters out, just 17.6 percent of the time in 2016. The Pirates have shown they can work with starters who don’t strike many hitters out, Edinson Volquez struck out only 17.3 percent of hitters with the Pirates, but that is a selective case. The real concern is his ability to pitch against left-handed hitters:
2013- 94 plate appearances, .250/.287/.273
2014- 286 plate appearances, .255/.330/.359
2015- 247 plate appearances, .250/.310/.339
2016- 264 plate appearances, .299/.345/.490
In 2016, Kuhl really struggled with left-handed hitters, and that likely will occur in the future unless he develops an out pitch against them. Just at the Major League level, Kuhl got left-handed hitters to strike out 13.7 percent of the time, against right handers it was 21 percent. Kuhl also struggles to go deep, as his highest innings/start is just 5.87 occurring in 2015. He has gone seven innings and more just five times in the last two years, or 8.9 percent of his starts. Having Kuhl start off as the number three in a starting rotation is a rather scary thought. In fact, he may be best suited to be a reliever like Juan Nicasio.
Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates top prospect, carriers many question marks, primarily control. In Pittsburgh, Glasnow had 23.1 innings of league average pitching, a 4.24 ERA, 100 ERA+, and 4.26 FIP. Despite striking out 9.3 batters per nine, he walked 5.0 hitters per nine. Like Kuhl, Glasnow also struggles to go deep into games, as his 5.38 innings per start in 2016 is his highest ever. He cannot control the running game either, as 20 of 25 attempted base stealers were safe off of him last season. Glasnow has the tools to be in this starting rotation, he just has to fix a lot of his problems.
Drew Hutchison has struggled in his career, 4.93 ERA, but his 4.25 FIP indicates bad luck, and if pitched to that is not a bad backend starter. Despite a “lack of outpitch” or whatever narrative is now created, Hutch has struck out 21.2 percent of batters he’s faced in his big league career. AJ Burnett was 21.5 percent, Ivan Nova is at 17.4 percent, and JA Happ is at 19.9 percent. In fact, Jameson Taillon is at 20.3 percent and Gerrit Cole is at 22.6 percent. In fact, since 2012, that 21.2 percent is better than Alex Cobb, Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, Jordan Zimmermann, Dallas Keuchel, and more. To say he lacks an out pitch is just factually wrong, but it’s okay, nobody cares about baseball in Pittsburgh, it’s more of a hockey town, a mecca of sorts for the sport played on ice.
However, Hutch does come with a series of questions. His home run rate of 3.3 percent is extremely high, as the MLB Average since 2012 has been 2.6 percent. He gives up extra base hits 9.2 percent of the time compared to league average of 7.9 percent. His main reason of struggle has clearly been the long ball, but has been a victim of batting average on balls in play. Among the 227 qualified pitchers since 2012, Hutch’s .314 BAbip is 18th highest in baseball. That does tie in with his line drive percentage of 21.8 percent ranking 47th highest, right in between Lance Lynn and Jake Arrieta. His hard contact percentage is 31.6 percent, is 33rd highest, right between Edwin Jackson and Ryan Dempster. Despite that, since 2015, Hutch’s soft contact of 20.1 percent is between Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda, ranking 36th among 168 pitchers with at least 160 innings.
Hutch’s questions rally rely on if he will keep getting the soft contact he’s gotten since 2015, or if he will get hit hard again. If he can’t keep the ball in the park, by far his biggest question, he’ll sputter and provide Jon Niese type value. Hutch is more of a wild card than Glasnow I think, because if PNC turns what would be home runs into outs, Hutch will be a fine back-end starter. If PNC does not help, good luck on your next team, Mr. Hutchison.
The rest of the players currently in the organization feature plenty of flaws as well. Trevor Williams seems more of a depth option or a future reliever, as he does not strike many hitters out. Steven Brault is left-handed, which gives him an advantage, but he walked 11.2 percent of the hitters in Indy and 10.2 percent of the hitters in Pittsburgh. Like Williams, he too may be best suited for the bullpen. Jeff Locke will almost certainly be non tendered.
This leaves the Pirates facing questions with 40 percent of their starting rotation, and arguably 60 percent with Kuhl penciled in at the three spot. The team may get by with a current Hutch or current Glasnow as the five, see 2013-2015 Jeff Locke, but they need upgrades, and real upgrades to their starting rotation.
With a weak class of starters, the Pirates best route is going to have to be via trade. If the team can’t acquire one solid starter – even just a Gio Gonzalez type – the Pirates starting rotation woes will continue to trend to at least start the 2017 season, and that’s even giving the benefit of the doubt that Cole and Taillon will be themselves.