Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Preview: The Rotation

The Pittsburgh Pirates will be kicking off Spring Training tomorrow, with pitchers and catchers reporting today. To get ready for Spring Training, we will be previewing one set of positions each day this week, with the final group coming tomorrow. Here are the groups we’ve already profiled:

The Infield

The Outfield

Today we take a look at the starting rotation. The Phillies signed A.J. Burnett this afternoon, which means that the Pirates will definitely be going with the players already in the system. Here are the roster predictions based onĀ the current Spring Training invitees.

The Guaranteed Starters

You can count on Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton to be in the Opening Day rotation. Liriano had a huge 2013 season. Cole was looking like an ace by the end of the year. Morton returned healthy, and started to look like a strong middle of the rotation starter by the time his command came around. The Pirates followed that by giving him an extension, keeping him under team control through the 2017 season.

The Pirates signed Edinson Volquez for $5 M this off-season. While some don’t like the deal, and don’t want Volquez in the rotation, the reality is that the Pirates didn’t pay him $5 M to compete for a spot. He’s pretty much guaranteed a spot, which means you can pencil him in to the rotation. We’ll see if Ray Searage and the pitching staff can work their magic once again, much like they did with Liriano and A.J. Burnett in previous years.

The final rotation spot will go to Wandy Rodriguez, if healthy. Rodriguez is owed $7.5 M by the Pirates, and if he’s healthy, they’re going to use him. If he’s not healthy, Jeff Locke looks like the top option to win the fifth starter’s job.

The Depth

The Pirates were highly successful in 2013, despite a ton of injuries early in the season to their pitching staff. They were successful largely because of depth. That depth returns once again this year. Last year the Pirates had to rely on James McDonald to be one of the key starters in the rotation out of the gate, despite McDonald having a poor finish to the 2012 season. Jeff Locke is in the same boat this year, but the Pirates aren’t relying on him, and will have him as a sixth starter. Stolmy Pimentel should start the season in the bullpen, but is a great option as a spot starter, playing a Jeanmar Gomez type role in 2014. Gomez is also projected to return, giving another starting candidate in the majors.

Last year the Pirates got starts from Phil Irwin and Brandon Cumpton throughout the year. Irwin’s start didn’t go well, and he ended up missing the rest of the season shortly after his major league debut. Cumpton did much better in his time in the majors, although he doesn’t project to be as good as his numbers in 2013 indicate. Both profile as back of the rotation starters in the majors, and both pitchers should start the season in the Indianapolis rotation, with a chance to make it to the majors during the season.


The depth won’t just come from the above five players, but will also come from top prospects who could make their debuts mid-season. Jameson Taillon is the top name from this group. He’s expected to make his debut in mid-June, similar to what Gerrit Cole did in 2013. If Taillon comes close to the success that Cole had, then his addition will be a big boost for the Pirates, especially if they run into injury problems.

Nick Kingham and Casey Sadler both had success in Altoona last year, and both could be candidates to make it to the majors by the end of the 2014 season. It’s possible that one, or both, could remain in Altoona to start the 2014 season. However, the Pirates have seen plenty of pitchers start the year back in Altoona, then make the majors by the end of the same season. The most recent example would be Cumpton. Sadler is on the 40-man roster, and has already made the jump to Indianapolis, so he seems more likely to start the season there.

Joely Rodriguez is on the 40-man roster, but he doesn’t project to make the team out of Spring Training. He should start the year in Altoona, and could make it to Indianapolis by the end of the season. It’s possible that Rodriguez could help the major league team as a lefty out of the bullpen in September, but that’s far from a guarantee since he hasn’t faced upper level hitting yet.

Kyle McPherson looked like a potential #3-4 starter a few years ago, but has dealt with a series of injuries. The most recent injury required Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in early July. That would put him on the path to return in the final two months of the 2014 season. If he reverts back to the starter he was before the injuries, then the Pirates have another good option, and someone who profiled better than Locke, Cumpton, and most of the pitchers already mentioned as depth. However, since he has seen so many injuries, it’s hard to tell what kind of pitcher he will be when he returns. Fortunately, the Pirates have depth that runs two rotations deep, and then some, meaning that any production from McPherson is a bonus.

Projected Opening Day Rotation

SP1 – Francisco Liriano

SP2 – Gerrit Cole

SP3 – Charlie Morton

SP4 – Edinson Volquez

SP5 – Wandy Rodriguez

Early Season Depth – Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez, Phil Irwin, Jeff Locke, Stolmy Pimentel

Second Half Depth – Nick Kingham, Kyle McPherson, Casey Sadler, Jameson Taillon

  • I was really excited about McPherson before he got hurt. I hope we can see him come back to what he was before he got hurt. He seemed to have very good stuff.

  • Top 3 is very good, one of the better top 3s in the NL. 4 and 5 could be an utter train wreck, especially since Edison Volquez, who has zero business being on the roster of even a competent team, is unrightfully guaranteed a rotation spot. Need Wandy to be healthy, badly. Because Volquez will suck. I’d rather see Locke, Cumpton, Jeanmar, Stolmy, Justin Wilson, Phil Irwin, or well anyone but Volquez in the rotation. He flat out sucks.

  • I believe this team is a lot weaker then it was ending 2013 and is at best, a fringe WC team as it stands now. The Pirate front office might just have outsmarted themselves this winter. I keep hearing that we should use the Devil Rays as the small team to emulate. Well, look at what they spent in FA signings this year compared to what the Pirates did. Take away Wandy, and his guaranteed contract, and the Pirates have spent almost nothing in FA. And prospects be darned, you can’t win a division or a World Series waiting on players who “might” or “may” be great. Its great to know we have some possible powerhouses forth coming, but unfortunately, MLB isn’t going to hold off their season waiting for them to arrive in Pittsburgh.

    • The offseason is not over yet….

      Trades DO happen during ST.

    • YOU believe Long John ? What makes you a more credible source than men and women who do MLB personnel evaluation for a living ?

      • Buster, I am offering up my opinion on a thread that seeks thoughts and opinions, and frankly I don’t appreciate your holier then thou attitude in questioning my “credentials”.

    • Long John.

      Mostly, I disagree. The real difference between then and now is the loss of Marlon Byrd.

      AJ was getting hit pretty hard late as he wore down.

      IF Wandy is okay, we’re a better team now than last year at this time. And by the second half we could be substantially better.
      “Just a minute there, Mac? Just what kinda tracks was you followin’?”

    • The only way you can be good is if spend money!!!!!!! Right LongJohn? Glad the season isn’t played on paper or the trophy isn’t handed out in the off season. Should we just give the Mariners the damn trophy now then? Just like the Blue Jays last year? And the Marlins the year before?
      Why can’t the Pirates improve from within, why is Ike Davis, Smoak, Moreland seen as better than Lambo when he hasn’t been giving the chance?
      Why can’t Tabata and Snider handle the job again in RF, until Polanco arrives and makes the most dynamic OF in Major league baseball, regardless of hitting the Defense will be hands down the best in the game.
      Why can’t Neil Walker continue to improve and possibly stay fully healthy? Why can’t Pedro continue to learn and get experience and become a better overall hitter?
      We all just assume and look at stats from last and say “Oh that’s it, he didn’t do this last year so he can’t possibly do that this year” Just like Burnett and Liriano the years before, people didn’t want them here because they weren’t very good in terms of hard stats like ERA, but the Pirates looked deeper and saw High K:9, high groundball rates, advanced metrics just like in Volquez.

      • No, spending money in itself does not guarantee a winner and I never said it did. But to not spend and upgrade and to only wish upon a star, will not get you one either. You need a balanced attack like they (the Pirates FO) did last off season, and its my opinion the FO didn’t have one this year.

  • Why is there no discussion of Justin Wilson as a starter? He’s got great stuff and was a starter in the minors wasn’t he?

    • Docdon : in case you have missed it, Wilson had command and control problems as as a starter. His problems were extreme enough that he was switched to relief. As a starter,Wilson was in the 93 to 95 mph range consistently as I recall. When used in relief,his velocity jumped to the 97 to 99 range with an occasional triple digit 4seamer in there. Especially being a LH er,why would they want to move him back to being an inconsistent starter ?

      • Maybe because there are only a handful of left handed starters in baseball who have “stuff” comparable to Wilsons. Wilson was an effective starter in the minors, his control improved last year, and he is still plenty young enough to improve more in the future. The Pirates will be amazingly dumb not to at least give him a shot at starting. There are 25 other teams who would be happy to give him a chance to start….. Control is also overrated for a power pitching lefty. Starters can pitch around walks when they can overpower the next guy. Locke, who is not a power pitcher, had a great first half last year with horrible walk numbers. The only thing I can figure is they are waiting until 2015 after Liriano and Wandy are gone……….

  • Tim,

    Please let us know as soon as you see Wandy throw a baseball more than 60′ and does he do it without pain. Thank you.

    • This is definitely the big questions mark. There are worse 5th starters in the league than Jeff Locke though.

  • Our 5 starters that are returning and their ERAs from last year:
    Frankie – 3.02
    Cole – 3.22
    Morton – 3.26
    Locke – 3.52
    Wandy – 3.59

    Will they regress? Will they get better?

    Who knows…but that’s a pretty darn good starting point if you ask me. Plenty of FIP studies on Locke saying he went from being overly lucky to being overly UNlucky.

    And in reserve we have Cumpton, Pimental, Gomez and eventually Taillon.

    Personally, I was surprised at how well they all did. Lance Lynn’s 3.97 ERA got me curious. He would’ve been 7th on our staff!!!

    And, although I am not a fan of Volquez, look at what Searage and our shifts did for AJ. Folks (I don’t) forget just how bad AJ was! 5.26 and 5.15 the previous two years. He shaved two whole frikkin runs off of that ERA!!!

    • PiratesFan1975
      February 12, 2014 3:38 pm

      For a lot of people it is like the 2010 and 2011 seasons did not exist for AJ. Everyone seems to forget the Pirates did as much for AJ as AJ did for the Pirates. It was a two way street. Not just AJ Burnett Blvd.

      • ++++ 1 Pirate Fan ! Nothing in professional sports of any kind happens in a complete vacuum.

    • AJ and Liriano were aces that had come backs. Volquez has never put up numbers like they did. I don’t see how his is a better option than Locke.

      • PiratesFan1975
        February 12, 2014 5:14 pm

        Yes he has. See 2008. He was also pretty good in 2010 when he came back from the injury.

        In 2012 he was basically 2010/2011 AJ Burnett. A 1.1 WAR pitcher with a good K rate and good GB%.

        His big issue is walks. If he can replicate AJ Burnett’s 2010/2011 to 2012/2013 walk rate reduction of about 1 less per 9 IP he will be fine.

  • I’m not expecting much out of Wandy this year….jmho

    • Strange things tend to happen in contract years. He is not that far removed from being a solid #2/#3. I would love to see him get a fast start out of the blocks.

  • Tim – did you have 2 articles written w/ and w/out AJ? ha ha

    • Actually I had this article set to go up at noon, with an opening paragraph talking about Burnett. The Burnett news came out at 11:55, which was enough time for me to delay the article and make a quick change.

      The old version was basically “Burnett hasn’t signed with anyone yet…it’s possible he could return, but I don’t think it is likely…if he does return, he’d be in the guaranteed section”.