Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates had an offense that was ranked in the lower half of the league. Despite this, they won 94 games in large part due to their pitching. They saw a ton of injuries to their starting staff throughout the season, but still maintained strong pitching thanks to their depth.
Heading into this season, most of that pitching was returning. The Pirates were getting Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton for full seasons. They had two question marks at the back of the rotation, with Wandy Rodriguez returning from an injury, and Edinson Volquez being a reclamation project. The Volquez signing was controversial, because the Pirates had passed on A.J. Burnett, letting him sign with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Prior to tonight’s game, the Pirates ranked 27th in the majors in ERA from their starting pitchers, with a 4.59 ERA. If they would have gone with Burnett over Volquez, they would have seen an improvement on that number. Replacing Volquez’s numbers with Burnett’s numbers this year gives a 4.04 ERA. That’s still not good, and would currently rank 18th in baseball. Last year the Pirates had their success with a top five rotation.
It’s also not earth shattering to say that Burnett would have been better than Volquez. No one was saying otherwise during the off-season. My thought was that the rest of the rotation would be good enough that Burnett wouldn’t be a necessity.
As it stands right now, the rest of the rotation has been playing below expectations. They should be pitching better than this, as their xFIP is 3.95. Francisco Liriano (4.54 ERA/3.67 xFIP) is the biggest candidate to see improvements going forward. But even if the rotation was pitching up to their expected performance, it might not be enough.
That 3.95 xFIP is still around the middle of the pack in the majors. Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez are looking like number four starters, while Liriano and Gerrit Cole are pitching like strong number three starters or weaker number two starters. The rotation last year that featured three pitchers throwing like number one starters by the end of the year hasn’t returned.
As we saw last year, and as we’ve seen in the past with other teams, strong pitching and defense can lead to a winner, even with a below average offense. The Pirates aren’t getting that pitching this year. The depth has been fine, with Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler stepping up. Jeff Locke was looking good through five innings tonight, before imploding during the sixth inning. But the depth isn’t going to provide a top of the rotation starter, and won’t take the starting rotation to a top ten group. The only way that can happen is if Liriano, Cole, and Morton start pitching the way they were pitching in 2013. And without a rotation that is better than middle of the pack, this team will continue to be in trouble.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.