After three straight playoff appearances from 2013-2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates took a major step backward last year winning only 78 games and missing out on the postseason fun. The offense and most notably Andrew McCutchen were wildly inconsistent throughout the year but the starting rotation went from being one the biggest strengths of the team to a liability just like that. Posting a 3.21 team ERA, good for second in baseball in 2015, the Pirates plummeted all the way to 18th after their pitching combined for a 4.21 ERA. On top of their team ERA going down a full point, the Pirates threw 106 less strikeouts compared to the previous year going from ninth in the league down to 22nd in strikeouts. The starters just weren’t able to go late into games producing only 68 quality starts, good for 22nd in all of baseball.
The root of their pitching problems all started with perennial ace Gerrit Cole. Cole went through an awful, injury plagued season after standing out as arguably the team’s best pitcher since making his debut in 2013. His sidekick for the past few seasons, Francisco Liriano, was also in the middle of a horrific year before getting traded mid-season to the Toronto Blue Jays. The likes of Juan Nicasio, Jeff Locke, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jonathon Niese were a few other names that the Pirates trotted out last year to start a combined 63 games for them. Later in the year, top prospects Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhle, and Tyler Glasnow all got their foot in the door making their MLB debuts. All three have extremely high upside showing last year that they have what it takes to pitch in the major leagues. Trade deadline acquisition Ivan Nova is also still around after signing a 3-year, $26 million deal to stay put in Pittsburgh. With all that being said, let’s dive into the Pirates projected rotation once opening day comes around April third.
1. Gerrit Cole– All eyes are on Gerrit Cole this year to shut everyone up and prove that he can again be the ace for a playoff caliber club like he was in 2015. He was lights out that year pitching over 200 innings and going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, breaking out from being just an above average pitcher to an absolute game changer in year three. There was an enormous amount of buzz surrounding Cole going into last year with analysts viewing him as a top pitcher in baseball, expecting him to make an even greater jump into baseballs elite.
Unfortunately, Cole greatly disappointed as injuries throughout the year limited him to pitching a career low 116 innings. Even when he was on the mound he was nothing to write home about going 7-10 with a 3.88 ERA. Cole had stretches last year, when healthy, that brought back fans to 2015 which gives the Pirates optimism that he can rebound and settle into that number one spot again. This is a make or break season for Cole as he might be the most single important player to the Pirates success. If he excels expect the Pirates to be back in the playoff hunt again, but if he gives a replica of last year, then the Pirates will be looking up at the Chicago Cubs and St Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
2. Jameson Taillon– The No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft behind Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon finally made his long-awaited MLB debut last year for the Pirates. He didn’t disappoint as Taillon showed management and the fans that they might have found their pitcher of the future to build around. In his 18 starts since being called up, Taillon went 5-4 with a 3.38 ERA, he was unusually calm and collected for a rookie making his first starts in the big leagues. He certainly has the makings of a big time pitcher as the Pirates want to groom him to eventually take Cole’s spot atop the rotation, if he struggles again. Since Taillon is expected to pitch way more than the 104 innings he pitched last year the Pirates need to be careful making sure he doesn’t sustain an injury. He does have some prior injuries, undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014 and dealing with a sports hernia in 2015.
3. Ivan Nova– Another player who pitching Coach Ray Searage brought back to life, Ivan Nova will man the number three spot in the rotation behind Cole and Taillon. After six up and down years in the Bronx, the Yankees finally let go of the right hander at last year’s deadline shipping him to the Pirates for prospects. Nova was in the midst of another inconsistent year with the Yankees going 7-6 with an ERA close to five at 4.90 making him expendable at the deadline. The Pirates thought Nova had enough tools for pitching guru Searge to fix so they took a chance on him. They were dead right with their assessment as Nova finished out the year going 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA pitching well enough for the Pirates to bring him back on a three-year pact. If Cole regains his form and Taillon pitches to expectations this team will have a very solid top three starters to lead their rotation. Now having a full season in Pittsburgh and under Searage, expect Nova to continue pitching well for this ball club.
4. Chad Kuhle– Following in Taillon’s footsteps, Chad Kuhle is another home-grown pitcher who made his MLB debut with the team last year. Being drafted in the ninth round of the 2013 draft, Kuhle is part of this Pirates youth movement of pitchers who are being given starts rather than the journeyman who have started games the past few seasons such as Vogelsong, Locke, and Niese. Kuhle impressed as well starting 14 games while going 5-4 with a 4.20 ERA proving he is perfectly capable of being given a starting spot for this upcoming season. Even though he might not have the upside of becoming an ace like Taillon, Kuhle looks more than ready to be the third, fourth, or fifth starter for a team possessing good mechanics and confidence in his pitches.
5. Tyler Glasnow– Last but not least, the projected fifth starter heading into the season is to no one’s surprise another homegrown pitcher by the name of Tyler Glasnow. The six-foot eight rookie also made his MLB debut last year but didn’t experience the same amount of success as Taillon and Kuhle. In four starts Glasnow went 0-2 with a 4.24 ERA, displaying all the tools possible to become a good starting pitcher but just needing to get his mind right. Since the Pirates didn’t really bring in any veterans to compete for the number five spot it seems that they are giving Glasnow every opportunity to take this spot and run with it.
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