With the news of Gerrit Cole being sent down today I’ve got to thinking about how good (or to be more accurate bad) the Pirates “ace” has been over the course of the 20 year losing streak. The first step to do this was to go about picking the Pirates ace from each season. I did this in a subjective way factoring in a bunch of different stats but one thing I did set as a constant was a minimum of 150 IP in a give year (this was adjusted down some for the shortened 1994 season to 120 IP). You can see the results below. Also to give an idea of how baseball as a whole pitched that year I have listed the pitcher’s ranking in terms of FIP and WAR (min 150 IP, 120 in 1994).
1993: Steve Cooke
Stats: 210.2 IP, 3.89 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 3.3 WAR
Rankings: 38th (WAR), 41st (FIP)
1994: Denny Neagle
Stats: 137.0 IP, 5.12 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 2.0 WAR
Rankings: 47th (WAR), 35th (FIP)
1995: Denny Neagle
Stats: 209.2 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 4.6 WAR
Rankings: 11th (WAR), 12th (FIP)
1996: Denny Neagle
Stats: 182.2 IP, 3.05 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 3.6 WAR *based on only his time with the Pirates
Rankings: 32nd (WAR), 20th (FIP) *based on only his time with the Pirates
1997: Francisco Cordova
Stats: 178.2 IP, 3.63 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 3.5 WAR
Rankings: 30th (WAR), 23rd (FIP)
1998: Francisco Cordova
Stats: 220.1 IP, 3.31 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 3.6 WAR
Rankings: 32nd (WAR), 33rd (FIP)
1999: Kris Benson
Stats: 196.2 IP, 4.07 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 3.7 WAR
Rankings: 27th (WAR), 22nd (FIP)
2000: Kris Benson
Stats: 217.2 IP, 3.85 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 4.0 WAR
Rankings: 24th (WAR), 24th (FIP)
2001: Todd Ritchie
Stats: 207.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 3.2 WAR
Rankings: 35th (WAR), 36th (FIP)
2002: Kip Wells
Stats: 198.1 IP, 3.58 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 2.5 WAR
Rankings: 56th (WAR), 46th (FIP)
2003: Kip Wells
Stats: 197.1 IP, 3.28 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 2.4 WAR
Rankings: 61st (WAR), 60th (FIP)
2004: Oliver Perez
Stats: 196.0 IP, 2.98 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 4.5 WAR
Rankings: 17th (WAR), 11th (FIP)
2005: Mark Redman
Stats: 178.1 IP, 4.90 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 2.2 WAR
Rankings: 69th (WAR), 52nd (FIP)
2006: Zach Duke
Stats: 215.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 3.3 WAR
Rankings: 42nd (WAR), 31st (FIP)
2007: Ian Snell
Stats: 208.0 IP, 3.76 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 3.5 WAR
Rankings: 35th (WAR), 32nd (FIP)
2008: Paul Maholm
Stats: 206.1 IP, 3.71 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 2.8 WAR
Rankings: 48th (WAR), 49th (FIP)
2009: Paul Maholm
Stats: 194.2 IP, 4.44 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.2 WAR
Rankings: 43rd (WAR), 32nd (FIP)
2010: Paul Maholm
Stats: 185.1 IP, 5.10 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 1.9 WAR
Rankings: 80th (WAR), 70th (FIP)
2011: Charlie Morton
Stats: 171.2 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 2.1 WAR
Rankings: 70th (WAR), 48th (WAR)
2012: AJ Burnett
Stats: 202.1 IP, 3.51 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.4 WAR
Rankings: 29th (WAR), 27th (FIP)
The numbers above pain a pretty gruesome picture. Only twice in the last twenty years did the Pirates have a pitcher rank in the top 20 of the league in both FIP and WAR. A lot of years the Pirates struggled to even get a player to crack the top 50 in both categories. AJ Burnett helped dramatically improve the Pirates standing last year by posting the best season from a Pirates starter since 2004 but even so the Pirates have a lot of room to go to catch up to the rest of the league. The Pirates will not be able to close that gap through external means so there only hope of doing so in the next two or three years lies squarely on the arms of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Yes it has been a little disappointing to see them both sent down this spring but both of them still need a little fine tuning before they are set loose. If things go right the Pirates in 2014 or 2015 could have two ace caliber seasons from Cole and Taillon matching their total from the last twenty years combined. There is a light at the end of the tunnel Pirates fans.
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
At the very top of my personal top Pirates prospects list the Pirates have a group I call the top 6 and a group I call the next 6. Two of the top 6 prospects and 1 of the next 6 prospects will be beginning the 2013 season either in AA, AAA or perhaps the major leagues. The two top prospects are of course Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. The next 6 prospect is Kyle McPherson. Cole is likely to garner the most attention and will likely start the season out in AAA but with a few adjustments and a strong start to the season he could see Pittsburgh fairly early on. Big things are expected from Cole and I fully expect we will see him in Pittsburgh come June or July. Cole may be the ace the Pirates are sorely lacking but it is not realistic to expect him to be that right out of the gate. I expect his major league time to be solid but lacking the elite quality we all will hope to see. Taillion should start the year in AA with a chance for a mid season promotion to AAA. I have high hopes that 2013 will be the year he unleashes his full arsenal and starts putting up the dominant minor league numbers we all hoped we would see. McPherson is competing for a major league rotation spot this spring but barring injuries I see him starting the year in the AAA rotation. McPherson will definitely get some time in the majors this season and I would like to see him perform well enough to earn a 2014 rotation spot. I think McPherson has the upside of a solid middle of the rotation starter and I have reasonably high hopes he will take the first steps towards establishing himself as one this season.
The Pirates upper levels aren’t exactly brimming with hitting talent. The top prospects are probably Tony Sanchez, Adalberto Santos, Alex Dickerson, Gift Ngoepe and if he is promoted to AA Mel Rojas Jr. Sanchez I have already discussed this is a pivotal year for him to have a solid season in AAA and in the likely event of one of the Pirates two catchers suffering an injury this season I would expect Sanchez to be a candidate to be called up to the majors. My expectation is Sanchez will have a solid but not great year in AAA and struggle offensively during any brief major league stint. Santos, Dickerson and Ngoepe I could see all starting in AA this season. Santos has a case to move up to AAA but the crowded outfield will likely hold him back. Hopefully one or more of these three will show something this season that lets the Pirates believe they could be contributors to the 2014 team. My expectations aren’t really high for any of them as I expect Dickerson’s numbers to be solid but again not where they need to be for an all bat player, Santos to regress from his good contact ways and Ngoepe to show only minimal improvement with the bat. The remaining hitting prospects with some intrigue are Ivan De Jesus, Matt Curry, Clint Robinson and Carlos Paulino. De Jesus, Curry and Robinson should start the year in AAA and could be called upon to serve as major league depth this season. Of the 3 my expectations are the highest for De Jesus who I think could develop into a nice middle infield utility player.
Outside of the top 3 pitching prospects I discussed the Pirates have a bunch of interesting arms projected to begin the season in one of the top two levels or the major leagues. Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Andy Oliver, Phillip Irwin and Victor Black are all very intriguing arms with some degree of chance of making the major league squad but most likely for all except Morris and possibly Wilson they will start the season in AAA. I have previously discussed Morris and Wilson so I’ll focus on the other 3. Oliver to me looks like another Justin Wilson type project who the Pirates will try to fix his control this season. Irwin has the look of a crafty righty with a know how to pitch and a good enough arsenal of pitches where he could be an effective back of the rotation starter. Black has the makings of a late inning shut down reliever but needs some fine tuning before he gets there. My expectation is that Oliver won’t show much improvement with his control and will wind up in the bullpen and the other two will show positive signs of improvement and I wouldn’t be shocked if either or both of them spent a fair amount of time in the majors this year. In AA the pitching talent is a little less deep outside of Taillon but two guys I’ll be watching are Stolmy Pimentel and Casey Sadler. With this being Pimentel’s last option year I expect the Pirates to move him to the bullpen and Sadler shown enough the Pirates are likely to keep him starting but I think they see him as a reliever long term. I don’t have high hopes for Pimentel this season but I think Sadler will show enough promise the Pirates will add him to the roster at the end of the season. There are a bunch of other semi-interesting pitching prospects in the upper levels but the 4 that catch my eye are Duke Welker, Brandon Cumpton, Tyler Waldron and Hunter Strickland. Welker and Strickland are on the 40 man roster and will need to show something to prove they belong there. I think Strickland will surprise people but my expectation is that Welker will struggle. As for the other two I think both will be converted to relief roles this spring to see if either is worth protecting from the Rule V draft this upcoming offseason. I suspect one of these two will wind up being the Pirates yearly surprise addition to the roster.
Prospects To Watch
I already mentioned that I think De Jesus, Waldron and Cumpton are a couple under the radar names to keep an eye on but I want to dig a little deeper and mention a few players who look like organizational players at this point who interest me. Jared Goedert is having a solid spring and while I don’t expect a whole lot out of him if he hits well in AAA he could get a chance in the majors and I think he has a chance to find a niche there as a good pinch hitting option. Michael Colla has flown under the radar but he has had moderate success at essentially every level. He could potential earn a chance to pitch as a middle reliever some time this season. A few other players I plan on keeping an eye on down in AA are Justin Howard, Kelson Brown and Tim Alderson. Howard is a 1st baseman with limited power but a pretty good knack for making contact. The Pirates have tried using him in the outfield some and with no real option to man 3B in AA I wouldn’t be shocked to see him trotted out there. If he can manage to be competent defensively in the outfield and third base his good contact ability could gain him some traction as a potential bench option down the road. Brown is the type of player who is solid in all aspects of the game but wonderful in none. He plays multiple positions, makes decent contact, shows a little power and is sound defensively. However he does none of those things at a high or low level. He has been fairly successful at every level and as I said with Howard the opening at 3B provides him with a chance to get some playing time and if given a chance he could surprise some people. Alderson has been written off by nearly everyone at this point and with very good reason but he is still relatively young. The last two seasons he has shown progress in converting to a reliever and a more finesse pitcher. He isn’t ever going to become what the Pirates hoped they were acquiring when they traded Freddy Sanchez for him but maybe there is enough talent left in him to develop into a marginal relief prospect. Now for the standard disclaimer my expectation of the players I discussed at length here is that they will continue on their path as organizational guys but of that group the names I noted I believe have the best chance to surprise in 2013.
Predicting minor league rosters can be a tricky exercise because there are often a lot more options than there are actual spots. The Pirates have roughly 35 players per level who it would make sense to assign to that particular team but obviously you can have 25 at a time. Now at some point during the season it is possible, even likely, that all the players will appear but when talking about original assignments that is not the case. With that disclaimer aside I am going to give my best approximation of what the Pirates minor league rosters will look like this upcoming season. For the record when filling out minor league rosters I go with the standard 8 starters, 5 starting pitchers and 7 relievers. The bench is made of a DH, backup catcher, reserve infielder, reserve outfielder and a utility player.
Candidates: Tony Sanchez, Ali Solis, Lucas May
Analysis: The starting catcher is an easy one to peg here. Barring an injury on the major league level Tony Sanchez will start the year in AAA and serve as the regular starting catcher. There is little to no debate about this. Now who will be his backup is a bit more uncertain but it appears likely that it will either be Lucas May or Ali Solis. May has more experience in AAA and even in the majors and Solis is the better defensive catcher. Both will likely spend some time in AAA this year and are probably the 4th and 5th options to see time in the majors should a slew of injuries occur.
Prediction: Tony Sanchez
Candidates: Matt Curry, Clint Robinson, Matt Hague, Jeff Larish, Anderson Hernandez, Ivan De Jesus, Brandon Inge, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Chase d’Arnaud, Jared Goedert, Alex Valdez, Jeremy Farrell
Analysis: That is a lot of bodies for 4 starting infield positions. Chances are two of the above players will be on the major league bench, currently I have Harrison and Mercer projected to be there so they can probably be safely dismissed. As far as prospects go the only ones listed above are Curry, Robinson, De Jesus and Mercer and those 4 are more fringe prospects than anything. The Pirates could opt to go a lot of different ways here and at this point it is difficult to figure out just what the plan is.
Predcition: Matt Curry (1B), Ivan De Jesus (2B), Brandon Inge (3B), Chase d’Arnaud (SS)
Candidates: Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Felix Pie, Darren Ford, Brad Hawpe, Adalberto Santos, Brett Carroll, Andrew Lambo
Analysis: Some of the infielders could come into play here as well as players like Larish and Goedert have some experience in the outfield corners, however I think the Pirates have enough depth where that is likely not to be an issue at least with the starting roster. Alex Presley and Jerry Sands are candidates to start the year in the majors so if they don’t they will almost certainly get starting jobs in AAA. The only prospects in the above list are Santos and Lambo and both of them could use some more time at AA although I would prefer to see Santos pushed to AAA. The Pirates glut of right fielders makes this a crowded group and the Pirates will have to sort through it before the season begins.
Prediction: Felix Pie (LF), Alex Presley (CF), Jerry Sands (RF)
Analysis: All of the above candidates who I did not project on to the roster are candidates to be part of the AAA bench. Five players in all will make it with one serving as a semi-regular starter at DH. There are still a bunch of names left so it is difficult to say just how this will go but chances are there will be a backup catcher, backup infielder and backup outfielder with the other two spots either going to utility guys or to someone ton handle the DH spot. There are a lot of ways this could go as well.
Prediction: Clint Robinson (DH), Lucas May (C), Jared Goedert (IF), Darren Ford (OF), Matt Hague (U)
Candidates: Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez, Gerrit Cole, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, Michael Colla, Brandon Cumpton, Phillip Irwin, Andy Oliver, Justin Wilson, Brooks Brown, Stolmy Pimentel
Analysis: Once again we have a lot of bodies for a very limited number of spots. Some of these pitchers are candidates to make the majors and some are candidates to start in either the AAA bullpen or AA. Currently I have Locke and Sanchez making the major league squad so I will remove them from the discussion. Chances are any of the Locke, McPherson, Sanchez trio that doesn’t make the majors will be a SP in AAA and chances are so will Cole. With my current prediction that leaves three spots open to the rest of the group that includes some interesting prospects in Irwin, Wilson, Oliver and Pimentel and some fringe starter types in Mazzaro and Gomez.
Prediction: Gerrit Cole, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson, Andy Oliver, Phillip Irwin
Candidates: The above group, Victor Black, Duke Welker, David Bromberg, Erik Cordier, Kyle Waldrop, Mike Zagurski, Roman Colon, Jeff Inman, Kris Johnson, Ryan Reid
Analysis: I’ll be honest with you there is no way in the world I can try to accurately judge what a minor league bullpen is going to look like so I’m not going to pretend I know anything here. What I’m going to make is just a guess and really nothing more.
Prediction: Victor Black, Duke Welker, Brandon Cumpton, Kyle Waldrop, Vin Mazzaro, Mike Zagurski, Kris Johnson
C: Tony Sanchez, Lucas May
IF: Matt Curry, Clint Robinson, Matt Hague, Ivan De Jesus, Chase d’Arnaud, Brandon Inge, Jared Goedert
OF: Felix Pie, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Darren Ford
SP: Gerrit Cole, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson, Andy Oliver, Phillip Irwin
RP: Victor Black, Duke Welker, Brandon Cumpton, Kyle Waldrop, Vin Mazzaro, Mike Zagurski, Kris Johnson
1. Gerrit Cole
Expected 2013 Level: AAA
Bio: The Pirates selected Gerrit Cole with the 1st overall pick in the 2011 draft and gave him an 8 million dollar signing bonus. Cole is a work horse starting pitcher who has a fastball that sits in the high 90s and regularly touches 100. He also has a good arsenal of secondary pitches including a two seam fastball, a change up, a curve and a slider (the change up is his best secondary pitch). Cole’s upside is a true ace someone who takes the ball every fifth day and gives their team an excellent chance to win nearly all of their starts. Cole does have some issues though as he has a tendency to elevate his fastball which led to him getting hit harder than one would expect in college. Cole had a good professional debut in 2012 and is expected to receive a little more polishing in AAA in 2013 before ultimately joining the Pirates.
2. Jameson Taillon
Expected 2013 Level: AA
Bio: Taillon was selected by the Pirates with the second overall pick in the 2010 draft. There are quite a few similarities between him and Cole. Both pitchers have plus fastballs and a good assortment of secondary pitches to back up but both also have the knock on them of elevating their fastball too much and being hit around a little. Taillon is younger than Cole and as such is not as far as long in his development as Cole but make no mistake he has the same upside as Cole which is a number one pitcher. Taillon’s fastball is likely a hair slower than Cole’s and his best secondary pitch is his curve whereas for Cole it is his changeup. In 2011 Taillon started the year off in A ball and he pitched well although his stats were not dominating as the Pirates mainly had him working on fastball command. In 2012 he was sent to A+ and once again he pitched well but not dominating, he was however very impressive in a short stint in AA at the end of the year. Taillon will start the year in AA and will like get a mid season promotion to AAA at some point.
3. Luis Heredia
Expected 2013 Level: A
Bio: Heredia was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2010 for 2.6 million dollars. He turned 18 years old near the end of the 2012 season and is extremely polished for his age. He has good command of his fastball which sat in the lower 90s when he was signed but is now in the middle 90s. His offspeed pitches are still a work in progress but scouts seem to believe they are developing nicely. Heredia started the 2011 season in rookie ball and handled himself quite well going up against competition that was mainly 2-3 years older than him. The Pirates pushed him to A- in 2012 and he had an oustanding season. He had a stellar ERA but on the downside didn’t strike many people out but given his developing offspeed stuff that is not really surprising. The Pirates are likely going to push him to A ball this season but will closely monitor his innings.
4. Kyle McPherson
Expected 2013 Level: AAA
Bio: McPherson was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 2011 draft making him one of the few leftover Littlefield prospects remaining in the Pirates system. Unlike the three pitchers above him McPherson does not have an ace potential but what he does have is some major league experience and a bit more certainty surrounding the fact that he will become a solid major league pitcher. McPherson is slated to compete for a rotation job in Spring Training but will likely head back to AAA to begin the season as he only has three career starts at that level. His upside is probably that of a #3 starter who eats innings. His arsenal is solid with a low 90s fastball that he can put a little extra on, a changeup and a curve. McPherson’s best asset though is his good control. McPherson is very likely to see the major leagues at some point this season.
5. Nicholas Kingham
Expected 2013 Level: A+
Bio: Kingham was drafted by the Pirates in the 4th round of the 2010 draft. He fit the standard mold of a tall projectable right handed pitcher that Neal Huntington and his staff appear to love drafting. To date Kingham has probably been the most successful of all those types of pitchers taken and signed by the Pirates. Kingham’s ceiling is likely not that of an ace but he could still make for a solid front of the rotation arm and slot in nicely as a #2. His arsenal includes a low 90s fastball with good movement, a solid change and a curve that is currently a work in progress. The Pirates had Kingham make his pro debut in 2010 but he didn’t pitch much so his first extended taste came in 2011 when he pitched at the A- level in 2011. He performed very well which earned him a 2012 promotion to A ball. At first glance his 2012 numbers in A ball appear poor but that is mainly due to a high ERA as his secondary numbers show he had a fairly nice season. The Pirates are going to try Kingham at A+ and he is a popular breakout pick.
6. Clayton Holmes
Expected 2013 Level: A
Bio: The Pirates selected Holmes in the 9th round of the 2012 draft and while he was overshadowed by Cole and Bell his 1.2 million dollar signing bonus was a record for any player taken in the 9th round. Holmes is another one of these tall projectable right handers that Huintington’s seems to like as his fastball sits in the low 90s and his secondary pitches show signs of being solid but need work. Due to his large signing bonus Holme’s signing was not approved until the deadline so he did not appear in any games in 2011. The Pirates had Holmes make his professional debut in 2012 at the A- level and he pitched extremely well but was overshadowed by Heredia. Holmes overall numbers were good but he did show some control problems plus he also has a bit of an unortodox delivery which could prove to be a problem going forward. Right now though Holmes good 2012 campaign has him amongst the Pirates top prospects.
7. Tyler Glasnow
Expected 2013 Level: A
Bio: Glasnow was selected in the 5th round of the 2011 draft and is you guessed it a tall projectable right handed pitcher. He, as most of the rest do, throws a low 90s fastball and has a secondary arsenal which includes a curve, change and slider which has the potential to be solid in the future. Glasnow did not pitch for the Pirates in 2011 but made his debut for them in 2012 in rookie ball. He pitched extremely well, striking out a lot of batters, which is something most Pirates pitchers did not do in the lowest levels, and he touched 96 with his fastball. The Pirates gave Glasnow a few appearances in A- near the end of the year which is usually a sign that they are considering trying him in A ball the following year. The Pirates will probably place him there at some point but like Heredia and Holmes they will be monitoring his innings closely so starting out in extended spring training is a possibility.
8. Justin Wilson
Expected 2013 Level: AAA
Bio: The Pirates selected Wilson in the 5th round of the 2008 draft and shortly after his selection he received some attention for his performance in the College World Series. Wilson has the stuff to be a good #2 pitcher in a rotation and has made it all the way to AAA but yet he has been held back because of not being able to control his stuff that well. Wilson has a fastball that sits in the mid 90s and can touch the upper 90s and he compliments it with a curve and a slider which are fairly solid pitches as well. He generates a lot of strikeouts and is tough to hit but he also tends to walk a lot of batters which tends to hurt his overall results. His control problems have plagued him all through his minor league career. The Pirates have tried him both at starting and relieving and it is not clear what they will have him do in 2013. Wilson could start the year off in the majors in the bullpen but will most likely be sent back to AAA to work on his control.
9. Bryan Morris
Expected 2013 Level: MLB
Bio: Bryan Morris is the last piece remaining from the Jason Bay deal. When the Pirates originally acquired him he was touted as a starting pitching prospect but once he got to AA that stalled and the Pirates opted to move him to the bullpen. The move to relief proved to be a good thing for Morris as he has pitched exceptionally well since being moved in 2011. Morris finished 2011 strong out of the bullpen and was promoted to AAA to begin the 2012 season. Morris pitched very well out of the bullpen in 2012 but was surprisingly not called up by the Pirates until September. Morris’s arsenal consists of a mid 90s fastball, a very good curve and an average change up. He is out of options heading into 2013 so even though he has not really been given a chance to establish himself as a major league reliever the Pirates will almost certainly start him off in the majors instead of waiving him and risk losing him.
10. Victor Black
Expected 2013 Level: AAA
Bio: The Pirates drafted Black with the 49th overall pick in 2009 which they received for their failure to sign Tanner Scheppers the year before. The Pirates drafted Black as a started but even at that time most scouts saw him as a potential late inning reliever rather than a starter. Black pitched a few innings in 2009 in A- and then opened 2010 in A ball but missed most of the season due to a shoulder injury. During the 2010 offseason the Pirates decided to switch Black to a relief pitcher and then sent him to A ball to begin the 2011 year. Black struggled but was for some reason promoted to A+ where he continued to struggle. In 2012 the Pirate surprisingly pushed Black to AA where he stayed healthy all season and had a breakout year. His fastball sat in the mid 90s occasionally going into the upper 90s and he proved to be mostly unhittable. He did walk a few too many but the stuff he displayed is characteristic of a dominating back of the bullpen reliever. Black will start the year in AAA but could be called up to the majors fairly quickly and might ultimately assume the closer role.
With Jeff Karstens now back on the Pirates payroll there are 6 pitchers with a reasonable chance of starting the year in the major league rotation. They are A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. In addition to those six there are quite a few other players who could factor in at some point this season. There are a handful of pitchers who look like they could be non-horrible spot starting options in Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Zach Stewart but none of them would ideally be counted on. There is also the two reinforcements, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole, who will hopefully both be ready to help contribute by mid season. Then there is even Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver who have the stuff to be good starters if they can figure out their control. Finally the Pirates also have a stable of AAA pitchers who look like they should be ready to step up and make a handful of starts later in the year in Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and even Michael Colla. That is undoubtedly a lot of arms but I still believe the Pirates need to bring in another starter and I’ll explain why.
Let’s first take a look at the depth. A lot of the pitchers making up the Pirates depth, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and Michael Colla are going to probably need a couple of months before they would be ideally counted on to help the rotation. Two more Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver will need time to prove that they have improved their control before being ready to move up. What this means is that a lot of this depth will not be ready to help out should a problem arise in say April or May. Now with six starters ready to start the year that ordinarily wouldn’t be a huge deal but the Pirates have risk factors with all six of their starters.
Burnett – AJ will be 36 years old this upcoming season and had two poor seasons prior to his good year last season. A pitcher nearing his late 30s is always at risk of breaking down especially one with as much use on it as Burnett.
Rodriguez – At 34 years old Rodriguez isn’t as old as Burnett but there is a cause for concern as his strike out rate has been steadily dropping the last few seasons. The bottom really fell out in 2012 as he dropped from 7.8 K/9 to 6.1 K/9. He is going to need to show he can transition into being successful as a finesse pitcher.
McDonald – The biggest question mark of them all. Which McDonald is the real McDonald? Is he the Cy Young candidate we saw the first half of last year, the AA arm we saw in the second half or somewhere in between. A complete collapse can not be ruled out.
Karstens – The reason the Pirates didn’t offer Karstens arbitration was his injury history. Karstens has been a very consistent starter for the Pirates but the question is how long can he stay healthy? The Pirates really shouldn’t be counting on Karstens for more than about 120 innings max.
Locke – I feel pretty good about Locke but the issue with him is that he has no track record of big league success and has struggled when given his few chances. Locke has been a very successful AAA pitcher and while that probably should transition over to him being at least a solid 4/5 in the majors you never know until he actually does it.
McPherson – McPherson has had shoulder soreness twice in the past year and last time it cause him to miss a decent chunk of the season. Add in the fact that he has only made 3 starts at the AAA level and you have a pitcher who the Pirates should probably proceed cautiously with.
With all those question marks and the real possibility that a starter outside of those 6 might be needed the way the Pirates are currently constructed they would need to give the chances to one of the spot starter options in Gomez, Stewart, Leroux or Mazzaro. If those 4 are forced to make a combined 2-3 starts this year, ok stuff happens the team should be fine but if one of them is needed to move into the rotation in April or May it could very well likely signal bad things for the Pirates. For the Pirates and all teams really one of the most important keys is depth in the rotation and while that is coming for the Pirates it isn’t there yet. Ideally come midseason the Pirates will have a surplus to trade for needs in other areas or will be able to convert some starters into bullpen arms but you can’t go on expecting the ideal the Pirates need to prepare for the very real possibility that they may need an extra arm to help the rotation get through April and May. As long as health holds out Burnett, Rodriguez and McDonald should all start the season in the majors. McPherson would ideally start the year in AAA to get a few more starts and a little more polish. This leaves two rotation spots for Karstens and Locke. I would really like to see those two battle it out for the 5th spot with Locke going to AAA if he loses and Karstens being the swing man if he loses. The las rotation spot needs to go to someone on the outside. Perhaps the Liriano deal can be reworked and he can fill the last spot (his upside would really fit nicely with what the Pirates need) or perhaps another free agent such as Marcum or Saunders can be had or maybe a trade for someone like Capuano or Porcello but the bottom line is another arm needs to be added so the Pirates can have some reasonable security that they will be able to make him through April and May with their in house rotation options.
There has been a lot of news lately about the Pirates seeking a starting pitcher but also about how they are comfortable with the internal options they have. The Pirates do have a fair number of internal options but it doesn’t appear like it is quite enough to go in to the season with. So lets take a look at those internal options the Pirates are currently counting on.
Locks For The Rotation
The Pirates have 3 locks for the starting rotation heading into the season. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald all should start the season in the rotation and each one of them could be candidates to make 30+ starts and pitch 200+ innings but then again there are age concerns surrounding Burnett and Rodriguez and consistency questions surrounding McDonald. The Pirates are likely hoping that this trio can contribute roughly half of the starts they need in the 162 game season. More realistically though anywhere from 70-75 starts would be a good total.
Competing For A Rotation Spot
The Pirates have 3 players who look as if they are competing for the final 1 or 2 rotation spots in the rotation. These players are Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Vin Mazzaro. All three of these players could definitely have a positive impact on the rotation but then again all 3 of them are untested and unproven. Locke and McPherson both showed flashes of talent near the end of last season and of the 2 Locke seems to be the most polished and ready to take on a big league job. Mazzaro is out of options so the Pirates are either going to have to start the year with him on the 25 man roster or waive him. I really don’t see him as a starter but I expect the Pirates will give him a chance to compete for a job. I’m sure the Pirates would love to get 50-60 starts from this trio but I just don’t see it. If they can get anywhere from 30-35 starts that would be a success.
Mid Season Help
The Pirates have two players who look they will be ready to provide rotation depth some time around the middle of the year. Charlie Morton should b coming back from injury and Gerrit Cole should be polished enough from the minor league to make his debut. I have my doubts about Morton getting ready in the short 30 day window he will have but the Pirates appear to be counting on that so we will see. As for Cole we all know he is the top prospect and should make a very anticipated debut this season but we shall see how he fares and how long it takes him to get here. Both pitchers certainly have the talent to fill rotation spots for this club but again there is nothing for certain here. Ideally these guys would be able to provide a half a season each which would give them 30 starts but 15-20 would be a pretty good amount.
There are two prospects outside of Gerrit Cole who appear like they could possibly make a start for the Pirates some time this season. They are Jameson Taillon and Phillip Irwin. Chances are neither will be ready until August at the earliest so counting on the for more than a handful of starts can’t be done. Taillon is of course a top prospect and Irwin is a very stable arm who with just a few months of AAA time could be a Jeff Karstens like starter for the Pirates. Again these two are talented and may play a key role in 2014 but in 2013 anything more than a taste of the majors would be highly unlikely. Around 5 starts is all that can be expected from this duo and even that may be high.
Good Stuff, Poor Control
The Pirates have two left handers who have great stuff but little control. It is uncertain rather the Pirates see them as starters or relievers right now but one would think they will each get a chance at starting in AAA at least to begin the season. These two players are Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver. Both of them are power lefties who if they can even slightly improve their control could be great starters or dominating back end relievers but that is one very big if there. The Pirates shouldn’t be counting on this pair for any starts but it would be a huge bonus if they could make some. I wouldn’t count on them for any but it wouldn’t surprise me to see 10+ starts out of this duo if one or both can take significant strides this season. More likely though these two will serve as bullpen options.
The rest of the Pirates options are players who look better suite for relief work but could step up and make a spot start if needed. They are Chris Leroux, Rick VandenHurk, Zach Stewart and Chad Beck. These guys are really just emergency starters so if the Pirates need these guys for more than 1-2 starts things have probably gone horribly wrong. I would imagine that some of these guys will not even be with the Pirates at the start if the year and if they are 1 or 2 of them are likely to be removed from the roster.
So how many starts do we have from the internal options:
Mid Season: 20
The Rest: 10
The Pirates would probably be able to get by with what they have but my fairly realistic numbers seem to suggest that unless they get good luck in regards to health or are planning to count on players who they probably shouldn’t they are going to come up about 20 starts short. I believe it is important to avoid giving starts to players who just don’t appear ready and to have some backup plans should injuries arise. It is rather apparent to me that right now the Pirates need to bring in one more dependable starter because otherwise making it through the year is going to be rather difficult and could even get ugly. So the talk about Capuano and Porcello has plenty of merit and I expect the Pirates pursuit for their them or another pitcher will start to pick up in the coming weeks.
Top Prospects 1-5
5. Luis Heredia: The Pirates signed Heredia in 2010 to the largest deal they have ever given to an international player. His signing bonus, of which 75% went to his Mexican team, was worth 2.6 million dollars. Heredia had just turned 16 but already had a 92 mph fastball and good command of his change up two things very rarer for a player so young. In addition to his fastball and change up Heredia also throws a slider and curve but those still need quite a lot of work. The Pirates have hopes his curve ball will improve as he matures and hope that as he ages he will add more velocity. Heredia has been compared by some scouts to Felix Hernandez and is said to have the highest upside of any player in the Pirates organization. He is no doubt a special talent. The Pirates have opted for an aggressive path with Heredia sending him to rookie ball in his first professional season as a 16 year old. Heredia pitched fairly well in rookie ball but did show some control issues. His overall stat line doesn’t look great but when you put it in context of how young he is and how different the environment must be for him it becomes much more encouraging. Heading into the 2012 season the Pirates opted to continue to push Heredia this time sending the 17 year old to A- where he would face competition that was largely 4-5 years older than himself. Heredia had an outstanding season with a 2.71 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He showed much better control and was inducing a large percentage of ground balls by keeping his fastball low in the zone. The strike outs weren’t there but as of right now that is really a minor point for him. Heredia will certainly be aggressively placed again next season where he will probably play A ball. The Pirates may choose to hold him out of action for a month or so though in order to keep his innings under control. Going forward Heredia is a must watch in the Pirates organization and his ceiling is sky-high.
4. Alen Hanson: Hanson was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2009 and is largely viewed as the consolation prize for their failure to sign Miguel Sano. Hanson has a small build but surprisingly good power. He also runs very well and has shown solid range defensively at shortstop. Still his arm is a little weak so some scouts believe that long term Hanson is probably destined for 2B but the Pirates seem intent on giving him a chance at SS. Hanson played the 2010 season at the DSL level and had a great season. He showed off his great speed, his good contact ability and flashed some gap power. He didn’t play any shortstop though. The Pirates brought Hanson to the states the following season and had him play shortstop at the rookie level. Hanson got off to hot start posting an OPS over 1.300 in June but he cooled down some as the year went on. Hanson had an overall very solid season in rookie ball posting a .781 OPS. His defensive play at shortstop was decent but he certainly showed his flaws at the position. The Pirates gave him a taste of the A- level near the end of the season and like it usually does it was the precursor to a promotion to A ball in 2012. Hanson started the season on fire quickly garnering a lot of attention from fans in Pittsburgh something that is very difficult for a prospect in A ball to do. His hot streak lasted from basically April to June before he finally started cooling off in July. Even then Hanson responded with a very nice finish to give him an overall OPS of .909. He displayed good power hitting 16 home runs and continued making good contact. He also had a fairly decent walk rate but on the downside did strike out a ton. The weakest area of his game was no doubt his defense as he committed 40 errors on the season. He did improve defensively as the season went along though so that is a plus. The only other real negative with Hanson in 2012 was that his stealing efficiency took a hit as he was successful only 65% of the time. Scouts who think Hanson can stick at shortstop would probably be quick to put him very high in the overall prospect rankings but scouts who think he’ll eventually have to move will probably still have him around 60 overall. Hanson’s speed, bat and the outside possibility he sticks at shortstop makes him on of the most interesting prospects in the Pirates system. He will probably play next season at A+ where he’ll face two questions can he continue to hit and can he stick at shortstop.
3. Gregory Polanco: Polanco was another 2009 international signing by the Pirates. At the time he was signed Polanco was a great athlete who had excellent speed and the arm necessary to play center field. The Pirates also viewed him as a player who could potential add power as he filled out. Polanco actually got to play in 2009, the year he was signed and the Pirates sent him to the DSL. Polanco had a nice season at the level but it wasn’t anything spectacular. Still the Pirates had seen enough of him that they decided to bring him to the states the following season. Polanco played at the rookie level in 2010 and struggled with the only real positive being that he showed off an excellent base stealing ability by going 19/21 in steal attempts. Polanco also showed a touch of power but overall it was still a poor performance as he barely walked and his strike out totals were much higher than you’d expect from a speedy center field type. The Pirates had Polanco repeat the level in 2011 and while at first glance it appears Polanco didn’t show too much improvement he actually did. Polanco’s average only rose to .237 but he showed a much better eye at the plate, nearly tripling his walk total from the previous season and also cutting down on his number of strike outs. He also had a perfect season stealing bases and showed off his great arm by recording 8 assists. The Pirates promoted Polanco to A- near the end of the season and promoted him to A ball for the start of 2012. Polanco got off to a solid start but no where near what Hanson did but Polanco managed to keep improving as the season went along as he posted a .822 OPS in the first half and a 1.030 OPS in the second half. For the season his OPS was a tick better than Hanson’s at .910. Polanco had many positives in his season including breaking out the power by belting 16 HR and continuing to show improvements in plate discipline and also cutting down even more on his strike out rate. Also another positive and why I actually have him rated above Hanson is that Polanco leaves little doubt that he will be able to stick at his important defensive position of center field. The only real knock one can make against Polanco’s 2012 season is that his base stealing efficiency took a hit but even so it was still above 70% which is at least an acceptable rate. Polanco is the highest rated position player in the Pirate system and will play next season for the Pirates A+ affiliate and should be the everyday center fielder. Like Hanson the big question surrounding Polanco is can he continue to produce as he moves up the ladder.
2. Jameson Taillon: Taillon was drafted by the Pirates with the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 draft. Huntington’s selection of him says something about the upside he has as it is well noted Huntington prefers to take high school pitchers in numbers later on in the draft over taking one in the first round. Coming out of high school Taillon was already a very polished product throwing a fastball in the mid 90s and having such a good curve ball that one scout said it would amongst the best in baseball right now. There were some concerns about him though mainly that he tended to elevate his fastball and that his change up still had a ton of development needed. Taillon is frequently compared to Josh Beckett and certainly possess ace potential. The Pirates gave Taillon 6.25 million dollars to sign which was the largest signing bonus in the draft, even more than what Harper received. Taillon was an overslot signing so he signed late which means he wasn’t able to make his professional debut until 2011. Taillon opened the 2011 season in extended spring training to keep his innings down but then was aggressively pushed to A ball. Taillon’s numbers weren’t overwhelming but they were still solid. The Pirates had him working almost solely on fastball command which is a strategy they use a lot with younger pitchers in the low minors and in the case of Taillon who had a tendency to elevate his fastball it was probably a good idea. The Pirates sent Taillon to A+ to begin the 2012 season and he started off strong posting a 1.69 ERA in the first month. However Taillon was not good after his hot start, make no mistake he wasn’t bad either but just not good. He didn’t really allow a lot of baserunners as evident by his 1.17 WHIP but his strike out rate dropped and when he was hit he tended to be hit fairly hard. Near the end of the season the Pirates promoted Taillon to AA where he made 3 starts all in dominating fashion. The good news with Taillon is that his stuff is great and that he has fairly good command of the strike zone leading to a low walk rate. Taillon’s change up also seems to be coming along rather nicely. All in all he is developing nicely but the fact he looked rather ordinary in A+ for most of the season is a little concerning. If things break just right for Taillon it is possible he could see the major leagues by the end of the 2013 season but more likely he’ll start the year back in AA with a midseason promotion to AAA. Taillion has shown all the tools the Pirates probably wanted him to show so now all he really needs to do is put up the results.
1. Gerrit Cole: The Pirates drafted Cole first overall in the 2011 draft. The 2011 draft was a bit of an odd year as no player really stood out as being the clear number one choice. Cole was one of many players the Pirates considered with the 1st overall pick and he by far wasn’t the most major league ready or safest choice of the bunch. There were some concerns surrounding Cole coming out of college. The biggest concern by far was that he wasn’t really a great college pitcher. Cole had the highest ERA of any starting pitcher on his college staff in both 2010 and 2011 and luck didn’t seem to be a larger factor as his peripheral numbers were also amongst the worst on those staffs. Cole’s problem stems from weak control. He tends to throw strikes but on occasion has a difficult time putting the ball where he wants in the strike zone. With all those negatives being said it should be obvious there must be a ton of positives surrounding Cole and that is correct. Cole probably has the highest ceiling of any player in the 2011 draft and his upside is often compared to Justin Verlander. Cole’s arsenal includes a two seam fastball he throws in the low 90s, a four seem fastball he throws in the uppers 90s (and it touches 100) and a slider and change up that are regarded as plus pitches. I seen him in person on several occasions and the one thing he has in common with Verlander is that he throws harder late in games. There is no doubt Cole has the upside to not only be an ace but one of if not the best pitcher in baseball. The Pirates signed Cole on deadline day last year for 8 million dollars. The late signing meant he missed the 2011 season so he didn’t make his debut until this past season. Cole started his pro career in A+ and predictably had very little difficulty there. The Pirates promoted him to AA midseason and he ran into some difficulty. His numbers were still very good but he was running his pitch count up quickly so he wasn’t going deep into games. Cole settled down near the end of the season and was sent to AAA where he made one regular season start and one playoff start. His regular season start was mediocre and his playoff start was terrible. For the season Cole showed improvements in his main weaknesses and all of his pitches seemed to have taken a step forward. He still has a little work to do but he will hopefully be ready to help the Pirates at the major league level by midseason.