First Pitch: Make No Mistake, the Pirates Rotation is Set

No one from the Pittsburgh Pirates will come out and say the rotation is set with two weeks to go until the regular season begins. But the truth is that the rotation is set with two weeks to go until the regular season begins. In fact, the rotation has been set for a long time.

The top three starting pitchers were guaranteed spots coming into the season. Francisco Liriano pitched like an ace last year, and is in year two of his contract with the Pirates. Gerrit Cole is the ace of the future, and looked like he was moving into that role at the end of the 2013 season. Charlie Morton was finally healthy last year, and looked like a strong middle of the rotation starter. He also signed an extension over the off-season, which bought out control of three free agent years.

That left two rotation spots, and two likely candidates.

The first candidate was Wandy Rodriguez. All off-season, there were questions about Rodriguez’s health, and whether he’d be able to actually start. However, Rodriguez finally looks healthy, and has been pitching well throughout Spring Training. He has responded to every question about last year’s injury with “I feel nothing”, telling that the pain which constantly set him back last year is gone. Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington basically confirmed that Rodriguez was a lock for the rotation, although we didn’t need him to say anything to tell that Rodriguez would be a starter this year.

“He feels healthy, he’s thrown the ball well, and we’re looking forward to getting him built up and having him take the ball for us in the rotation,” Huntington said.

That leaves one spot, and Edinson Volquez. Coming into the Spring, he looked like a lock due to his salary, and the comments by the Pirates that they signed him as a starting pitcher. But Volquez has struggled in his time this Spring, leading to a lot of doubt about whether he can be effective, and whether the Pirates will actually keep him in the rotation. In fact, I had two people ask me today at Pirate City whether Volquez would be sent down (he can’t be) or put in the bullpen (he won’t). Huntington gave Volquez a vote of confidence in his meeting with the media today.

“Barring injury, we see Edinson in our rotation to start the season,” Huntington said. “We believe in the stuff. We believe we can help him make adjustments. We’ve had some other guys throw the ball well. So I’m not going to say he’s a lock, but as we came in to Spring Training, we anticipated he would be in our Opening Day rotation.”

So there you have it. Liriano, Cole, Morton, Rodriguez, and Volquez. It’s the rotation that was anticipated heading into Spring Training, and if everyone stays healthy over the next two weeks, it will be the rotation on Opening Day. It’s not a bad rotation either. Liriano and Cole looked like aces by the end of the 2013 season. Morton is a strong middle of the rotation guy. If Rodriguez returns to his pre-injury stuff, he can also give middle of the rotation numbers. That leaves a question mark in Volquez, with the chance that he could bomb in the fifth starter’s role.

You don’t have to search long and hard to find a team in the Majors with a question mark at the number five starter’s spot. And if worst comes to worst and Volquez bombs in the first month of the season, then it won’t be the end of the world. Jonathan Sanchez bombed in the first month of the season in 2013, and the Pirates went on to win 94 games, win the Wild Card game, and take the NLDS series to five games. The Pirates have some strong depth behind Volquez, so they’ll be able to recover quickly if he does struggle.

The whole off-season has been a focus on whether A.J. Burnett would return. Then, when Burnett left, it was a focus on whether Volquez could be successful, while the great news that Wandy Rodriguez was healthy sort of flew under the radar. All of this led to a perception that the Pirates will have some serious pitching problems. But I look at the Pirates’ rotation, and I see four good starting pitchers, one question mark, and good depth. A lot of teams, including contenders, would take that situation.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.

**Week In Review: Super Two Could Be an Annual Issue For the Pirates

**From yesterday: James Santelli Wins a SABR Analytics Research Award. Congratulations to James on the outstanding accomplishment!

**Why Gaby Sanchez Shouldn’t Be in the First Base Mix Against RHP

**Spring Training Notes: Locke, d’Arnaud, Polanco, Garcia, Grilli

**A Trade Seems Likely in the Next Two Weeks to Settle the Bullpen

**Draft Prospect Watch: Familiar Name Moving Up Draft Ranks

**An Early Look at the 2014 Pirates Minor League Rosters: Pitchers

  • Mike Adamson
    March 17, 2014 9:38 pm

    BTW I would rather see Crumpton get the 5th spot but in baseball options are punishment for a better performance!!!

  • Monsoon Harvard
    March 17, 2014 5:58 pm

    I’m not giving up on Volquez. I agree with the Pirates here, and he won’t break the team even if he sucks his first couple starts.
    But I think he wont suck. His arm is healthy and the staff and even Russell Martin seem to think they have the fix in his mechanics.

    If he even comes close to what he was when he was a rookie with Cincinnati, he could at the least turn into the best 5th starter in the league.
    I’m willing to give him till the end of April, at least.

  • lonleylibertarian
    March 17, 2014 2:19 pm

    It ain’t just me…
    I posed the question to Dan over at Fangraphs today…

    12:11Comment From Guest
    Pirates continue to cling to Volquez as #5 – does it cost them the playoffs?

    12:12Dan Szymborski:
    It could very well. I’m not a fan of it at all.

    12:12Dan Szymborski:
    Yeah, they turned around Liriano, but there were also more objective reasons to like Liriano

    I really hope I don’t get to say I told you so…

  • Really was never a question in my mind ( barring injury) that there was no room in this rotation for anyone else other then the players you mentioned .

  • This ship has sailed but just imagine AJ’s name in there instead of Volquez!!! My god this staff would be good. I’m just pissed that we didn’t address a need this offseason. We erased Tony Sanchez from the team and brought in a question mark in the rotation. I can see Volquez getting way more opportunities than he deserves so the Pirates can defend the signing. I hope I’m wrong.

    • Mike, do you really think the Pirates are more concerned with defending the signing than winning games? I would be very surprised if that’s the case. And they didn’t erase Tony Sanchez from the team. They brought in a ML backup catcher so Sanchez can get full time reps at AAA until he’s needed in Pgh. Let’s look on the bright side, he’s not wasting away on the bench.

      • Mike Adamson
        March 17, 2014 9:34 pm

        Are we talking about the Pirates here? Yes I do think they want to win but not at the expense of making money. I’m sorry but if they tender AJ, upgrade 1B or RF, then I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The Pirates were a game out of the NL Championship and they should’ve done more than window shop. They made no upgrades. If the Pirates win it will be because of development of young players but I have no doubt this team right now isn’t as good as the one in the playoffs.
        It looks like Sanchez will make the team after all.

  • PiratesFan1975
    March 17, 2014 11:25 am

    Tom Singer wrote in an article about the 5th spot the other day that Volquez still had options remaining. That might be where some of the questions about sending Volquez down have came from. As you have previously noted though he has used up his 3 options. Also the extra 4 option rule doesn’t seem to apply to him.

  • Are there any updates on Jeff Locke? And I agree with the analysis concerning Sanchez last season. Liriano and Sanchez were both question marks going in to last season. One worked out. One didn’t. The fact the Pirates have SP deoth at AAA is great. If Volquez works out, fine. If not, move on like you did last year with Sanchez.

    • Tim, had an update in one his note’s articles, Huntington said Locke was healthy but needs to be stretched out.

    • pittsburgh412
      March 17, 2014 9:32 pm

      Accept Sanchez wasn’t making a lot of money and volquez is making 5 mill. I really don’t see them moving on from his 5 million salary. I hope it works out and I am wrong but I can see them keeping him around and giving him a really long leash because of the money.

  • Not to change subject but can anyone offer any insight on Adam Wilk. Not a lot of data I can gather- missed a year and at least as of 2 years ago seemed to pretty soft tossing lefty but seems to putting some nice work together in Spring and got a start the other day. I’m wonder if he might be an under the radar reclamation project.

  • Tim,

    I think Volquez may very well work out but I’m not as quick as you are to use last year’s 94 wins with Sanchez being awful in April as evidence that a team can afford to throw a 5th starter in there who may be horrible without consequences.

    And quite frankly those wins we gave away with Sanchez could have been very valuable to avoid a play-in game and having allowed us to throw Liriano at the Cards twice at PNC Park.

    If we got past the Cards I strongly believe we beat the Dodgers. So in my opinion, Sanchez’s ineffectiveness had a pretty hefty price.

    • John, Sanchez started 4 games last year, and the Bucs won 1 of them. His 5th game was in relief of Wandy who had already given up 7 runs (JS inherited 1 runner that didn’t score) in a game the Bucs scored 4 total runs, so it’s tough to blame that loss on him even if he did give up a couple of runs of his own.
      So if Sanchez never signs with the Bucs, even if they win all 4 of the games he started (unlikely), they still play STL in a tie breaker for the division. Assuming Frankie pitches that game, he’s still only available for 1 game in the next series (though admittedly it could have been against the Reds).
      If the Bucs “only” win 3 of the 4 Sanchez starts (.750 winning % vs. their .580% for the whole season), the playoffs scenario doesn’t change at all. And it’s more likely that they only win 2 of the 4 games, again changing nothing in the postseason.
      So I’ll side more with Tim’s assessment that the “Jonathan Sanchez Experiment” didn’t effect the entire season all that much.

  • Isn’t reality more refreshing than speculation. Thank you Tim!

  • lonleylibertarian
    March 17, 2014 8:18 am

    To keep Volquez you need to lose a quality bullpen arm – you will either lose him via attempting to sneak him through on waivers – which will not work – or you will lose him by making a trade from weakness. Other GMs are well aware of the situation and would love to “help” the Pirates out by trading a 25 year old outfield/ib prospect who hit .230 last year at AA for Gomez.

    So I assume Volquez cannot be waived – nobody would be stupid enough to claim him – is this a condition of his contract?

    Taking 13 pitchers north when you will not need a fifth starter for at least 2 weeks – maybe longer if there are rainouts is not smart.

    • ll: Between now and mid-April, there will be a lot of activity in the market. Your first sentence captured exactly why I want to keep an extra arm. Gomez, Mazzaro, Pimental, Schlereth, and Wilk – any options? I think Schlereth & Wilk were signed to minor league contracts so that may save them.

    • pittsburgh412
      March 17, 2014 9:38 pm

      Yep agree I will be pissed as hell if we lose Mazzaro or morrisBecause we had to have the spot for volquez. No GM is giving up a quality 1st basemen for one of them. We will either get nothing or another Chris mcguiness type.

  • The Pirates are in an interesting position where, IMO, they may take 13 pitchers North rather than the normal complement of 12. That is based on the fact that a few of the pitchers who have done well in ST are out of options and we want to keep them. 13 pitchers, 8 starters in the field and then we will need a backup Catcher, at least one and probably two IF backups (Barmes, Harrison), and an OF backup of either Snyder or Tabata, whichever is not starting. If we do not go heavy on pitching, we will add a bench bat. We have guys who have options that will need to be sent down to get full time work – the three getting the most attention so far are Locke, Lambo, and Cumpton. Locke has not pitched much in ST, and Lambo could use a full time exposure to 1B, and hopefully re-capture the power stroke he had in 2013. Cumpton has been inconsistent. Lambo has all 3 options available, while I think Locke and Cumpton have 2 options available.

    • Emjay, you will not start the season with only 4 OFs and 1 1B. Not going to happen.

      • smurph: Harrison is hitting very well (1.098 OPS), and if we only carry 12 pitchers that leaves room for one more – Ish is hitting well and he has had some very good defensive numbers as a ML 1B for the Giants and Brewers. I would favor Gaby as the primary 1B, but Ish could offer some solid help.

  • Dom DiDominic
    March 17, 2014 7:09 am

    I believe the key here is, “Barring injury, we see Edinson in our rotation to start the season”.
    With the days off in the first couple weeks and the Cards up the first time the 5 slot would come up, Bucs would not need a 5th starter until April 15.
    On March 16th, I see no reason why NH would say anything different than giving his $5 million investment a vote of confidence. Should he continue to struggle along with the roster crunch in the bullpen, there would be little reason to DL him and get those first couple starts in Indy.
    Then it would come down to Cumpton, Locke or Stolmy out pitching him by April 15, not March 30th.

    • With five games in a row from April 2 – April 6, How do the Pirates avoid needing a fifth starter the first week of the season?

      March 31: Liriano
      April 2: Cole
      April 3: Morton
      April 4: Rodriguez
      April 5: Liriano (normal rest)
      April 6: Cole will be only on three days rest.

      • lonleylibertarian
        March 17, 2014 5:56 pm

        Well as should be obvious my first choice would be to waive the guy – but if you want to give this a go in spite of all the evidence that it will not turn out well then here is what you do…
        1. You leave Volquez in sunny, warm Florida with a pitching coach and catcher – and allow him to pitch in some extended spring training outings if that is within the rules – still have him on the 25 man roster. But the key is to keep him focused on fixing what he needs to fix and not having to deal with two weeks of crappy weather.
        2. You use Pimental for the April 5 start – a rain out would make that unnecessary – but it should work and with an off day the 7th you can use Gomez and the pen if Stolmy stumbles. The next critical day is April 15 – that would mean the human walk machine would have had an additional two week in sunny Florida to get his act together. Trot him out then and see what he can do.

    • You cannot just puts guys on the DL.

  • Do give up on Edinson just yet? Based on the Trib article, it sounds like he’s bought into what Ray and company are trying to do and it might just be a matter of mind and body consistently getting on the same page, doesn’t sound like his spring training struggles are for lack of listening/trying like Sanchez