Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates had three pitchers who looked like top of the rotation guys in the second half. Francisco Liriano had a great season, A.J. Burnett continued his success with the Pirates, and Gerrit Cole was looking like a top of the rotation guy by the end of the year.
Prior to this season it looked like they could potentially have three once again by the end of the season. They had Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole returning, and had Jameson Taillon on pace to arrive by mid-season as the 2014 version of Cole. Liriano has struggled, with a 4.72 ERA after today’s outing. Cole has been good, but not great, posting a 3.78 ERA. Taillon went down with Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. And thus, the Pirates have gone the whole year without anyone pitching like a top of the rotation starter.
That has led to talk about how the Pirates should trade for someone before the deadline. We already saw the price of a top of the rotation starter when Jeff Samardzija was dealt. The cost would require about 3-4 of the Pirates’ top ten prospects, including some of their top pitching prospects. The latter cost would put the Pirates in a constant situation where they are looking for short-term pitching help, because they’ve traded away their long-term options.
The question is, do the Pirates need to trade for an ace? They don’t have an ace right now, and they’re sitting 3.5 games out of first place in the NL Central. They needed top of the rotation guys last year, because the offense was so poor. That’s not the case this year. They rank third in the NL in wOBA. They rank second in wRC+. The Pirates don’t need an ace. They just need good pitching.
That’s what the Pirates are getting from most of their rotation. Charlie Morton has been outstanding this year, with a 3.32 ERA and a 3.75 xFIP. Jeff Locke looks the best he has ever looked, with a 2.89 ERA and a 3.34 xFIP. Statistically, he has been the best starter in the rotation this year. Edinson Volquez has a 3.65 ERA and a 4.28 xFIP. Gerrit Cole isn’t pitching like an ace, but he has a 3.78 ERA and a 3.57 xFIP. The only guy struggling in the rotation is Liriano, although his 3.74 xFIP gives hope that he can turn things around.
The Pirates are getting good pitching that is keeping them in games. That’s good enough when you consider the impact their offense can make. And as for aces, they’ve got two potential aces, even though those two haven’t been pitching like aces this year. Gerrit Cole could see improvements in the second half, and there’s still hope that Liriano figures it out. The Pirates would be better off hoping that this happens, rather than trading a lot of top prospects just to say you’ve got an ace in the rotation.
Right now the Pirates are in the early stages of being a perennial contender. They’ve got what could potentially be the best outfield in the majors, and that group is together through the 2018 season. They’ve got a lot of top pitching prospects coming up in the next year or two, which could give them the same thing in the rotation. They’ve got Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez under control for two more years.
This is the fourth year in a row that the Pirates have been contending in July (although they were borderline at best in 2011). Every year we hear “they need to make a trade”, with the latest weakness in demand. And there’s always a weakness. Look at any team in the majors and you’ll see that there’s an area that could be upgraded. The fallacy of the trade deadline is that you must upgrade anything that can be upgraded. That’s justified each year with “you never know when you’re going to be back in this situation”, which is used to explain why irrational moves need to be made.
The Pirates shouldn’t be operating to go all-in whenever they get a chance to contend. They should be operating to contend in as many years as possible. And that’s what they’ve been doing. It’s why they didn’t trade Starling Marte to rent Hunter Pence a few years ago. It’s why they didn’t trade Gregory Polanco last year, and why they didn’t deal Tyler Glasnow or Nick Kingham for Bud Norris.
The Pirates have a team that is contending this year. They’ve got a team that can contend next year, and in future years. They’ve got a lot of top prospects coming up in the next few years who will make it even more likely that they will remain contenders. They could either continue the approach they’ve been on, and strengthen their chance to remain long-term contenders. Or they could weaken their future teams just to strengthen their chances in one year. And the justification would be the same justification shouted out when people wanted to trade Marte, Polanco, Gerrit Cole, and every other prospect to get a short-term boost the last three years.
There was a point in the season about a month or two ago where it looked like the Pirates would need rotation help, both for this year and next year. Then Jeff Locke emerged. Vance Worley stepped up, and will be a key second half depth option, along with a starter until Cole returns. Edinson Volquez continued to impress. And now the Pirates aren’t in desperate need for a starter. They’ve basically made their in-season additions with Locke and Worley. And with their offense this year, it looks like their current rotation could be enough to contend.
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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.