In 2016, the Pirates pitching staff was in flux for much of the season. A combination of injuries and inconsistency forced the club to shuffle pitchers in and out of the rotation. Fourteen pitchers started a game for the Pirates in 2016 compared to only eight in 2015. Veteran lefties Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese flamed out as starters by midseason and were traded off, while guys like Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong were up and down every other start. Four of those pitchers (Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow) made their major league debut as a starter for the Pirates. Two other rookies (Wilfredo Boscan and Trevor Williams) made their first major league starts after previously debuting as relievers.
Coming into this season, there is much speculation about the rotation for the Pirates. The top three starters are pretty much set in stone. Gerrit Cole will once again be positioned as the number one starter and the hope is he returns to his 2015 style of pitching like a true ace of the staff. Jameson Taillon pretty much has been penciled in as the Pirates’ number two starter when last season ended. His 3.38 ERA in 18 starts is a good sign that he is growing up fast and should mature even more as a pitcher in his first full season in major leagues. Ivan Nova is the number three starter and is counted on to solidify the middle of the rotation, something the team was missing for much of 2016. As long as the Pirates don’t get September Nova, the third spot in the rotation is in good hands.
Though the front end is ready to roll, the back end of the rotation remains a question mark as workouts begin this week. There are about six to seven pitchers who could truly make a run at the remaining spots on the staff. As for now, it appears the number four starter spot is Chad Kuhl’s to lose. Multiple sources out of Bradenton have reported that the reading they are getting from Hurdle is they are going to go with the young right hander. To me, Kuhl isn’t the ideal guy I would want in this spot for the Pirates, but given what they currently have on their roster, I see why Kuhl is the choice. He’s more of a fifth starter in my view. And don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Chad Kuhl. He had his rookie moments, all young guys do. Kuhl did not get rattled like some rookies do when they make it to the show. His numbers weren’t the greatest, 5-4 4.20 ERA in 14 starts, but he gives the Pirates hard fought innings every time he goes out.
With Kuhl as the fourth starter, who will end up as the fifth starter? As I said before, there are a bunch of guys contending for this spot, some with a better chance than others. Currently, the pitchers competing for the spot are Drew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, Wade LeBlanc, Brandon Cumpton and Nick Kingham. Brault, Williams, LeBlanc, Cumpton and Kingham have the longest shots of earning job. In his rookie season with the Pirates, Brault failed to record a win in 7 starts going 0-3 and posting a 4.86 ERA. He showed nerves of steel in his major debut against the St. Louis Cardinals, surrendering 2 runs but striking out 5 in 4 innings. Look for Brault to start out in AAA or start out in the bullpen (although the Pirates have a plethora of lefties already in the bullpen). Williams appeared in 7 games including 1 start where he gave up 3 runs over 4 innings against the Cincinnati Reds. Overall, his ERA ballooned to 7.82, but the coaches see a promising pitcher who could help them with their bullpen and possibly spot start. LeBlanc has the most experience of any pitcher vying for the fifth spot. The veteran left hander was acquired by the Pirates in September from the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later. Despite his career as a starter, LeBlanc was only used coming out of the bullpen once he was in the fold, appearing in 8 games going 1-0 with a 0.75 ERA. With the Mariners, he started 8 games and appeared in additional 3 out of the pen, going 3-0 with a 4.50 ERA. For his career, LeBlanc has started 79 games going 22-31 with a 4.55 ERA. His chances are slim to be the fifth guy, but you know how much Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage covet lefties.
This will be the first time Cumpton has been able to pitch for the Pirates since he underwent Tommy John surgery back in March 2015 and then a shoulder cleanup in September of that same year. Two years is a very long recovery time for any pitcher, even worse for a fringe major league starter. Cumpton struggled in his second season in the majors after posting a 2.05 ERA in 5 starts and one relief appearance in 2013. His ERA more than doubled to 4.89 and finished 3-4 in 10 starts with 6 additional games out of the bullpen. What’s best for Cumpton is for him to start in AAA Indianapolis so he can get his sea legs back under him. Unless something odd happens, Kingham will be joining him in the Indians rotation in AAA. Like Cumpton, he missed parts of the last two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Though the club is high on Kingham and they do plan on debuting him at some point in 2017 barring any setbacks, he will start the season off in Indianapolis.
Now for the real contenders: Hutchison and Glasnow. The reports out of Bradenton have been stressing that the underlining message from Hurdle is that the fifth starter spot is Hutchison’s to lose. For my money, the only reason the team is leaning towards the former Blue Jay is to 1) push Glasnow in Spring Training and 2) make Neal Huntington’s fire sale last season seem meaningful by starting the guy you acquired. Huntington was bullish after the deal, revealing that Hutchison would be competing for a spot in the rotation for 2017. In his only start for the Pirates last season, he was hit for 4 runs over 4 innings, not factoring into the decision in what would be a loss. Hutchison came out of the bullpen for the remainder of the year and his ERA climbed to 5.56 in his 5 appearances. A ballooning ERA has always been one of the bigger problems with this right hander, who posted a 4.48 in 2014 and 5.57 in 2015. Hutchison did win a combined 24 games over those two seasons, but watched 45 home runs leave over that span, too. For the sake of comparison, Niese gave up 21 home runs last year, so expect a lot of meatball pitches again.
Frankly if it were up to me, Hutchison would not make it out of AAA. He is a pitcher who has to live off run support because he is not capable of shutting teams down. I understand why Hurdle isn’t just handing the spot to Glasnow. Yes, he is still growing and developing as a pitcher, but you have to let him spread his wings and fly. Granted, he looked a bit better coming out of the bullpen than he did as a starter. As a starter, the lengthy righty struck out 16 in his four starts while surrendering 10 walks and 9 earned runs. His last start of the season was his best, as Glasnow gave up only 1 run in 5 innings of work against the Cardinals while striking out 4. He may have walked 4, but things turned out better than the first time he faced St. Louis in his major league debut, getting shelled for 4 runs after dueling Adam Wainwright for the first 3 innings.
A colleague of mine had the perfect comparison for Glasnow: Nuke LaLoosh from Bull Durham, a pitcher who had great stuff that was all over the place with his control. Sometimes you get a lot of strikeouts, other times he can’t find the strike zone and the walks are adding up. Down in his heart of hearts, Hurdle knows Hutchison is not the answer the Pirates need at the five spot. But Hurdle also knows things change throughout the course of a season, as there are going to be changing parts within the rotation due to injury or poor performance. Hurdle is going to give Glasnow his chance to start at some point this season. It may be as soon as April or not until June, but he will get his turn. So unless Huntington pulls a fast one and makes a deal for another starter before Opening Day, Pirates fans are going to be stuck watching Hutchison struggle every fifth day, which will surely be a loss unless the offense gets at least five runs. The scary thing is he may need more runs than that. So buckle up buckaroos, it could be a long first couple months of the season.