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The Salvage Value of the 2016 Pirates’ Pitching Staff

Francisco Liriano has been immensely disappointing so far in 2016. Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

Francisco Liriano has been immensely disappointing so far in 2016.
Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

Baseball predictions are great for the first month, maybe month and a half, of the season until you realize that the season is starting to develop its own personality and tendencies.  Coming into this season, many (including me) felt that the Pirates had a strong bullpen that could help to paper over a weak back end of the rotation.  Unfortunately, virtually every member of the 12-man staff has had a down year in some aspect of their game.  The pitching, both starting and relieving, is the reason why the Pirates have underachieved to date with a 37-40 record.

But is there hope for this group of broken toys?  Let’s evaluate each one and see, based on how their 2016 stats compare to their career stats and pre-season expectations.

GERRIT COLE

  • 2016 season — 5-4, 2.77 ERA/3.08 FIP, 7.24 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 0.40 HR/9, 42.9% ground ball rate (GB%)
  • Career stats — 45-24, 3.03 ERA/2.92 FIP, 8.38 K/9, 2.23 BB/9, 0.54 HR/9, 47.8% GB

Cole has been on the DL with a triceps injury for a few weeks now, but even before that he wasn’t his dominant 2015 self.  As seen in his K/9 rate, his stuff hasn’t been as sharp, causing a decrease both in strikeouts and his ability to keep the ball on the ground.  Arm injuries for pitchers are never pleasant mid-season.

Chance to salvage his season — 6.5 out of 10

FRANCISCO LIRIANO

  • 2016 season — 4-8, 5.33 ERA/5.45 FIP, 9.08 K/9, 5.88 BB/9, 1.52 HR/9, 49.8% GB
  • Career stats — 92-87, 4.05 ERA/3.66 FIP, 9.25 K/9, 3.92 BB/9, 0.84 HR/9, 49.2% GB

For me, Liriano has been the most disappointing Pirate this season, even more so than Andrew McCutchen’s never-ending slump.  The rotation needed to be Cole-Liriano and then hope for the best, until the mid-season replacements (presumably Taillon and Glasnow) came on the scene.  With Cole not as dominant and now on the shelf, Liriano needed to step his game up and hold the rotation together.  Rather, he’s a guy that should have his next turn skipped to get his mental game together.

This season, Liriano has reverted to guy at the end of his Twins tenure (and short-lived White Sox run) that the Pirates rescued and rebuilt back in 2013.  In truth, his stats this year are even worse than that 2011-12 portion of his career.  His control has completely abandoned him and he can’t be trusted to hold either a 5 run lead (v. Giants) or 4 run lead (v. Dodgers) on this most recent homestand.

Lefties have stopped chasing his slider out of the zone and he can’t locate his fastball/changeup versus righties.  Liriano and pitching coach Ray Searage need to figure this out, tout suite.

Chance to salvage his season — 3 out of 10

JON NIESE

  • 2016 season — 6-5, 4.93 ERA/5.55 FIP, 6.47 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, 1.85 HR/9, 54.4% GB
  • Career stats — 67-66, 3.99 ERA/3.97 FIP, 6.92 K/9, 2.73 BB/9, 0.97 HR/9, 50.3% GB

I hoped that Ray Searage could sprinkle his magic dust on Niese and turn him into a JA Happ-esque #3 pitcher.  This would justify the Neil Walker trade and give the Pirates a reason to pick up his relatively affordable $10M option in 2017 (and $10.5M option in 2018).  However, Niese has been wildly inconsistent this year and has not provided enough justification to commit $10M to him next season.

After an awful April, Niese had a dominant May, but has reverted to a sub-par June. Niese hasn’t had a dynamic series of starts like the much-maligned Jeff Locke has had, but he’s had a handful of clunkers.  Niese is just…there.  He’s pitching like a #5 starter in a rotation full of them right now.

Chance to salvage his season — 5 out of 10

JEFF LOCKE

  • 2016 season — 7-5, 5.12 ERA/4.83 FIP, 4.62 K/9, 2.81 BB/9, 1.20 HR/9, 46.6% GB
  • Career stats — 33-35, 4.30 ERA/4.30 FIP, 6.35 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, 0.93 HR/9, 50.1% GB

Everyone’s favorite whipping boy has sure had his series of ups and downs this season.  Would it surprise you if I posited that Locke has pitched the two finest starts for the Pirates this year?  I would say the April 25th start in Colorado (6 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 8 K, 0 ER) and the June 25th start at home versus the Dodgers (7 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 ER) were not only great starts in a vacuum, but also were at key junctures of the season where the Pirates’ season could have gone off the rails.  Oh, he also has the Pirates only complete game of the year, a sparkling 3 hit shutout against the Marlins on May 30th.

Yes, he has had some atrocious starts, as well, which have inflated his ERA over 5.  But in his 15 starts, he has given the team a chance to win in 10 of them, which is plenty good enough for me from a #4/5 starter.  There are bigger issues than Jeff Locke on this team, pre-conceived notions aside.

Chance to salvage his season — 7.5 out of 10

JUAN NICASIO

  • 2016 season — 5-6, 5.48 ERA/4.96 FIP, 8.69 K/9, 3.88 BB/9, 1.60 HR/9, 39.9% GB
  • Career stats — 27-31, 4.96 ERA/4.29 FIP, 7.53 K/9, 3.48 BB/9, 1.14 HR/9, 43.9% GB

Nicasio has been moved to the bullpen with the arrival of Taillon and has acquitted himself quite well.  This was something we forecast could be successful, as Nicasio would help bridge the 6th/7th innings to the (theoretical) steady trio of Feliz-Watson-Melancon.

Nicasio was never going to be a starter for the Pirates the whole year.  He was meant to help bridge the gap to Taillon/Glasnow/et al.  He did that well early in the year and then struggled at the end.

He doesn’t need to salvage his season much at all.  He’s now in the right role.

Chance to salvage his season — 9 out of 10

NEFTALI FELIZ

  • 2016 season — 2-0, 3.21 ERA/3.47 FIP, 10.21 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9, 39.4% GB
  • Career stats — 17-12, 3.17 ERA/3.67 FIP, 8.41 K/9, 3.29 BB/9, 0.85 HR/9, 36.1% GB

Feliz’s overall stat line is fine’ish.  Lot of strikeouts, not a lot of walks.  He’s had good heat on his fastball this year.  But he’s had some uneven performances at times this year.  He’s been good, not great, and the Pirates need him to be great.

Chance to salvage his season — 8 out of 10

TONY WATSON

  • 2016 season — 1-2, 3.38 ERA/4.12 FIP, 8.44 K/9, 3.09 BB/9, 1.13 HR/9, 42.9% GB
  • Career stats — 25-10, 2.54 ERA/3.34 FIP, 8.14 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 0.72 HR/9, 43.5% GB

I like Tony Watson a lot.  I think he’s been an elite setup man and I think he can be a good closer for the Pirates next year.  I think it was the day after I wrote that article when Watson went into a prolonged swoon, along with the Pirates in general.

Since early June, Watson has been quite good again, but his 2016 season has not been nearly as dominant as years past.

Chance to salvage his season — 8.5 out of 10

MARK MELANCON

  • 2016 season — 0-1, 1.48 ERA/2.89 FIP, 7.12 K/9, 2.37 BB/9, 0.30 HR/9, 43.7% GB
  • Career stats — 19-17, 2.68 ERA/2.87 FIP, 8.11 K/9, 2.15 BB/9, 0.51 HR/9, 55.5% GB

Melancon is probably the one pitcher on the staff that you could say has very good all year.  However, this is his fourth year in a row where his peripherals are steadily declining among K/9, BB/9, and GB%.

This is his final year with the Pirates, most likely, and if the Pirates slide too far out of contention, the Pirates could (and should) trade Melancon for an interesting B-level prospect.  Melancon doesn’t need to salvage his season, but I wouldn’t mind a little refinement.

Chance to salvage his season — 9.5 out of 10

JARED HUGHES

  • 2016 season — 0-1, 4.37 ERA/5.97 FIP, 3.97 K/9, 4.76 BB/9, 1.19 HR/9, 51.8% GB
  • Career stats — 14-13, 2.90 ERA/4.12 FIP, 5.45 K/9, 3.04 BB/9, 0.66 HR/9, 60.8% GB

Is Hughes hurt still?  If that’s not the case, then we’re witnessing the volatility of a reliever right in front of our eyes.  This is why middle relievers or specialists don’t get multi-year deals.  Hughes was a lovable Lurch figure that would come in to a hairy situation, get a ground ball or a double play, and save the day for whatever pitcher screwed up.  This year he’s been helping to add more logs to the bonfire with a 47.4% inherited runner to score percentage.

His ground ball percentage of 51.8% is far below his career rate of 60.8% and drastically below 2015’s 63.7%.  Hughes is here to generate ground balls and get outs and he’s not doing either of those things well right now.

With a $2.2M salary to build off of for arbitration this upcoming offseason, Hughes is dangerously close to non-tender territory.  It’s very easy for me to see Chad Kuhl taking over his role going forward.

Chance to salvage his season — 3 out of 10

ARQUIMEDES CAMINERO

  • 2016 season — 0-2, 4.21 ERA/5.92 FIP, 5.96 K/9, 6.66 BB/9, 1.05 HR/9, 48.9% GB
  • Career stats — 5-4, 4.05 ERA/4.44 FIP, 8.25 K/9, 4.13 BB/9, 1.05 HR/9, 45.0% GB

I have no idea why Caminero is still on this team.  I mean, I do know, it’s his tantalizing velocity that erupts from his right arm, but in a season of bullpen implosions, I don’t understand why this arsonist is still on the 25-man roster.

The Pirates need to make strong moves to rectify their bullpen.  Just because a guy can throw 100 mph doesn’t mean you allow him to do harm to the team’s chances to win.

Chance to salvage his season — 1 out of 10

A.J. SCHUGEL

Schugel has sort of been painted as the Pirates’ designated “white flag” guy this year, but he’s actually been quite good of late.  As Schugel is a 27-year old rookie, he doesn’t have a body of work to judge himself against, so there’s nothing to salvage.  He’s been fine, but he’s also expendable if the Pirates seek an upgrade.

JAMESON TAILLON/CHAD KUHL

These guys don’t have a history to compare against, as they’re still figuring-out-where-to-park-at-PNC rookies.  Taillon pitched a gem in his second start for the Pirates versus the Mets, but has had some short outings recently.  Kuhl held tight against planet-devouring Clayton Kershaw on Sunday in his Major League debut, but it was just a workmanlike start.

Taillon is here to stay for the 2016 season, while Kuhl will return to AAA once Cole is healthy (but he’ll return in September when rosters expand or if a trade is made).  There’s no salvage value needed for guys that have only been here for a little bit of time.

About Kevin Creagh (289 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.