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With Or Without Quintana, This Pirates’ Rotation Stacks Up Well With Years Past

Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano have all been aces for the Bucs. How do the rotations behind them stack up to one another? Photos by (from left to right): Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports; Gene J Puskar/AP; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Come on, White Sox! I just got clean! I thought we had an understanding that once spring training rolled around, the trade rumors around Jose Quintana would die down and I’d be free to write about something else.

I guess the Sox had other plans. Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago reported last week that trade talks around the southpaw are “as robust as ever.” The Pirates are one of four teams mentioned to still be in the running.

It’s the trade rumor that will not die. That doesn’t mean it’s any more likely. It’s starting to feel like it’s slim to none, and I wrote Slim, and he still ain’t calling. Then again, never say never: we’re living in a world where you can win an Oscar when someone else is giving their acceptance speech.

The rotation could use another arm. Hutchison is probably better suited as a swingman/inning eater than a starter. That doesn’t mean they have to rush a deal before Opening Day. Even without Quintana, this rotation is better than most of the other ones the Bucs have started the year with recently.

So let’s take a trip down memory lane at some of the other rotations Neal Huntington spent an offseason building.

2013 Opening Day:

  1. A.J. Burnett
  2. Wandy Rodriguez
  3. James McDonald
  4. Jeff Locke
  5. Jonathan Sanchez

How’d it go?: Burnett gave the starter-starved Pirates 30 starts and almost 200 innings of 3.30 ERA ball. Locke was brilliant in the first half of the year and earned an All-Star game nod, but struggled down the stretch.

McDonald could not recapture his early 2012 magic before being placed on the DL and eventually released. Rodriguez had a similar fate (but he was released the next year). Jonathan Sanchez had -0.6 fWAR with an ERA over 11 in five disastrous outings.

How’d it change?: After starting the year on the DL, Liriano gave the Pirates 161 fantastic innings and became the ace of the rotation. Cole made his major league debut and became a reliable middle of the rotation arm. Brandon Cumpton also gave some quality outings.

Final verdict?: The opening day rotation was worth 5.4 fWAR. Cole, Liriano and Cumpton ended up being worth 6.5 wins.

The rotation finished the year with a 3.56 RA/9, the second best in baseball, but that was helped out by the legendary “Shark Tank” bullpen bailing out the starters more times than not. The Pirates had a quality start in 51% of their games, two points lower than the league average.

2014 Opening Day:

  1. Francisco Liriano
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Edinson Volquez
  4. Wandy Rodriguez
  5. Charlie Morton

How’d it go?: Volquez was one of Ray Searage and company’s finest reclamation projects, going 31 starts with an ERA just a tad over three. Liriano was up and down, but ended the year with a mid-three ERA even though he walked 4.5 batters per nine. Cole continued to progress and looked like an ace at times.

Charlie Morton had another above-average but injury-shortened season. Rodriguez was let go after six terrible starts.

How’d it change?: With Morton down for the count and Rodriguez gone, Vance Worley had a career year to save the starters. After being acquired for cash, he had a 2.85 ERA in 17 appearances (16 starts), good for 1.6 WAR.

Locke earned a starting job again and had decent results. Cumpton got another look as a starter and a reliever, but he did not show much in his 16 appearances.

Final verdict?: The opening day rotation was worth 5.8 fWAR. Worley, Locke and Cumpton were worth 2.9 wins.

Amazingly, a rotation pieced together with bubble gum and paperclips allowed only 3.9 RA/9, 15th in the league and 0.17 runs better than the league average. They had a quality start in 56% of their games, two points better than the league average.

2015 Opening Day:

  1. Francisco Liriano
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. A.J. Burnett
  4. Jeff Locke
  5. Vance Worley

How’d it go?: Cole had his breakout campaign (and started a debate on whether or not he is an ace that is so old that it should be potty trained), winning 19 games, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and finishing in the top five in the Cy Young voting. Batman’s return was just what the doctor ordered, and he joined Cole at the Midsummer classic. Liriano also turned in a good year.

Locke regressed to a number five starter and Worley was DFA’d before the season ended.

How’d it change?: The most notable change was J.A. Happ, who was worth 2.1 fWAR and a 1.85 ERA in the last two months of the season. Charlie Morton was once again injured for an extended period and his ERA crept towards five.

Final verdict?: The opening day rotation was worth 13.9 fWAR. Happ and Morton were worth another three wins.

The top four starters of this group were one of the best in baseball the past decade. Their 3.68 RA/9 was third in all of baseball and 0.57 runs better than the league average. They had a quality start in 57% of their outings, seven points better than the league average.

2016 Opening Day:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Francisco Liriano
  3. Jon Niese
  4. Juan Nicasio
  5. Jeff Locke

How’d it go?: The worst case scenario all across the board. Cole was hurt all year and struggled. Liriano and Niese both had negative WAR and were traded at the deadline. Nicasio was solid as a reliever, but his struggles against lefties and breaking ball troubles precluded him from keeping his job as a starter. Locke had a bad year that cost him his spot in the rotation and led to him being let go in the offseason.

How’d it change?: It was a completely new rotation by the end of the year. Ivan Nova sparkled and Ryan Vogelsong ate innings, but the real impact came from the farm system. Jameson Taillon proved he was major league ready. Chad Kuhl had a 4.20 ERA over 14 starts. Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault struggled in their jump to the majors, but they still have very bright futures.

Final verdict?: The opening day rotation was worth 3.4 fWAR. Nova, Vogelsong and the rookies who made multiple starts combined for three wins.

The rotation allowed 4.68 runs a game, which was one of the 10 worst in baseball and 0.2 runs worse than the league average. They had a quality start in 42% of their outings, five points lower than the league average.

And finally…

Assumed 2017 Opening Day:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Jameson Taillon
  3. Ivan Nova
  4. Chad Kuhl
  5. Drew Hutchison

In the last four years, the Opening Day rotation has been worth somewhere between 3.4 to 13.9 fWAR. The greatest of cynics and optimists alike would probably agree this group is going to fall somewhere in between those two figures.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has those five starters pegged for 7.3 WAR. That’s a little better than average for the four year mean, but it would be the second best in that stretch. They are also projecting a quality start in 51.2% of outings.

Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections has the projected rotation being worth 8 wins (3.1 for Cole, 1.8 for Taillon, 1.5 for Nova and 0.8 of a win each for Kuhl and Hutchison).

Obviously these are just two projections, but the forecast seems ok. “The sky is falling” is a bit of an overreaction, especially if you’re confident in at least one or two of these guys. That could mean either Cole rebounding to 2015 form, Nova proving his two months in Pittsburgh weren’t a fluke or the youngsters progressing at a good pace.

And if you don’t think it’s not enough, remember the Bucs benefited from 3 or more WAR from midseason additions and call-ups. It could happen again this year. ZiPS has Glasnow being worth 2.1 wins and Brault another 1.4. PECOTA is more conservative, but 1.5 wins from AAA is nothing to sneeze at. They could add another reclamation project at the deadline, too (my way too early prediction is Ubaldo Jimenez).

The Bucs could use another arm, but the rotation is not a liability. This year’s starting five probably won’t be as dominant as the 2015 group, but they’ve gotten by with much worse.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to refreshing Twitter every five minutes for Quintana news.

About Alex Stumpf (41 Articles)
Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.
Contact: Twitter

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