Last season was a disastrous one for the Pirates. A team fresh off three straight Wild Card berths finished under .500 for the first time since 2012. There were many faults to 2016, none more obvious than the starting pitching.
Where do I start with what went wrong? Gerrit Cole battled through injuries much of the season. Once he returned, he looked less like an ace and more like a guy trying to find himself on the mound. In August, Cole was 1-3 with a 6.08 ERA in 5 starts. A return start in September went even worse. Cole was KO’ed by the Phillies after two innings, surrendering five runs and walking four.
Francisco Liriano was also hampered by injuries for much of 2016. When he was pitching, he struggled to find consistency and his ERA ballooned to 5.46. Liriano was shipped along with Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez in a salary dump for the ages for Drew Hutchison (we’ll get to him later).
Jon Niese was awful. I’ve never seen a pitcher serve up so many meaty home run pitches to batters. The Niese for Neil Walker trade was so one-sided even before the season began. The Mets had no use for Niese at the time. Ironically, they sent Niese back to New York, who was sporting a 4.91 ERA at the time, for Antonio Bastardo.
Jeff Locke, who the team finally cut loose in the offseason, continued his decline since making the All-Star game in 2013. If it wasn’t for his complete game shutout in Miami, his ERA would probably have been over 6 (it was 5.44). And he was second on the team in wins! That’s how dreadfully bad his pitching staff was.
Your leader in wins last season? Juan Nicasio, who made the club in Spring Training after running rough shod through the Grapefruit League. Nicasio was also a fan of lobbing up the meaty home run pitches. After he was sent to the bullpen, he actually wasn’t a terrible pitcher. Ryan Vogelsong wasn’t bad in his role either as spot starter, but in all honestly, no one was expecting much out of him after the ball broke his jaw vs. the Rockies.
After all this doom and gloom about the 2016 rotation, there were some positives. Rookie Jameson Taillon showed a lot of promise once he was called up from AAA Indy. Taillon posted a 3.88 ERA in 18 starts this past season, the best mark for any Pirate with at least 15 starts.
Tyler Glasnow was another hyped prospect who made his debut last season. Pitching like a real life Nuke LaLoosh, Glasnow showed he does have the stuff for the majors, but went winless in 7 appearances, including 4 starts with a 4.24 ERA. Fellow rookies Chad Kuhl and Steven Bault also showed varying degrees of promise last season. Kuhl went 5-4 with 4.20 ERA while Brault went winless in 7 starts and posted a 4.86 ERA.
One big surprise was the success of Ivan Nova, who the team acquired at the deadline from the Yankees for two players to be named later (those names were Stephen Tarpley and Tito Polo). Nova won 5 of his first 7 starts with the Pirates and ended the season with a 3.06 ERA. Unlike 2015 when the team let their trade deadline acquisition go, the Pirates re-signed the veteran right hander to a 3 yr/$26M deal.
Now with Nova back in the fold this season, the team pretty much has its same staff coming back from 2016. The only exceptions are Vogelsong and Nicasio who, let’s be honest, are not the best options for a team trying to contend in the National League. With that all being said, the real question remains whether Neal Huntington will add another starter. This move or lack of move will say a lot of their direction this season. Rumors have been flying for months about the Pirates trying to trade for White Sox left handed starter Jose Quintana. The 27-year old made his first All-Star Game in 2016 and ended the year 13-12 with a 3.20 ERA while striking out 181. His win-loss record over his career (46-46) is due in part to playing on some sad White Sox teams and terrible run support and does not reflect his true talent.
But acquiring Quintana or signing a free agent isn’t going to guarantee success for the pitching staff. It hinges on Cole rebounding from his up and down campaign last season. Can Taillon take the next step in his development in his full season in the majors? Will Nova be able to consistently deliver quality starts as a middle of the rotation starter? And whether they bring in another starter or not, the team is going to have rely on guys like Kuhl, Brault and yes, Drew Hutchison when injuries flare up and to spot start.
The worry here is not with Kuhl or Brault, it’s obviously with Hutchison. He gave up 7 runs in 11 innings of work over 6 appearances which included 1 start. What’s encouraging is he did strike out 10 but he also surrendered 2 home runs and walked 3. If Ray Searage works his magic with Hutchison and he does pan out this season, expect Huntington to subtly gloat about this for a long time. And if Hutchison fails (I believe he will), it will just add to the L’s he has taken as GM, which have been starting to stack up as of late.
Even though it may not seem like it, I firmly believe the Pirates’ rotation will rebound from the dumpster fire that was 2016. No, they are not going to be a top 5 or 10 staff, but they are not going to be in the bottom third of the league in terms of pitching. Cole is going to be better. If he really thinks he is worth even half the money Stephen Strasburg was paid, we should see the same ace who won 19 in 2015 and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting.
Taillon should take the next step as a starter this season. He will hit double digits wins this season as long as he avoids the DL. Now for Nova, I’m not expecting the world. His Yankee career was pretty inconsistent at times so you shouldn’t be surprised if he has a couple bad starts in a row. And though it probably won’t happen, let’s say if Quintana does come to the Pirates he goes 16-9 with 3.56 and 183 strikeouts. No pressure with that stat line.
This season rides on the success of the rotation. If they turn it around, the Pirates should be able to take back second place in the NL Central and possibly play in the Wild Card game for the fourth time in five years.