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First Pitch: The Tough Decisions When Francisco Liriano Returns

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In the upcoming weeks, Francisco Liriano will be returning to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation, with his return currently anticipated for just after the All-Star break. The Pirates are getting good starts from their entire rotation, which will lead to a difficult decision when Liriano returns.

The current rotation consists of Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, and Vance Worley. Of that group, only Locke has options remaining. However, Locke has some of the best numbers on the team, both in terms of ERA, and in terms of xFIP. Sending him down would allow the Pirates to keep everyone as a starter, but it would be removing one of their best starters from the rotation.

We know that Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton are safe, as they should be. Cole has a 3.78 ERA and a 3.56 xFIP. Morton has a 3.30 ERA and a 3.78 xFIP. That leaves Volquez and Worley as the only options remaining.

Both guys could be considered reclamation projects. They’re both coming off down years in 2013, and both have turned things around with the Pirates this year. The sample size is small for Worley, but he has a 2.28 ERA and a 3.89 xFIP. He’s also under control through the 2018 season, which means there’s a long-term benefit to seeing if he’s legit. Volquez has a 3.88 ERA and a 4.26 xFIP after his start today, where he gave up one run in seven innings.

All of these guys are pitching well enough to be in an MLB rotation. Right now I’d say that Volquez is the odd man out. I looked up all of the starting pitchers with 50+ innings this year (to get the list to around 150 pitchers, or five starters per team), and Volquez ranked 105th in xFIP. That’s a number four starter. But if it came down to him and Worley, the Pirates would be better off seeing what Worley can do, as he’s under control beyond the 2014 season. Volquez is only under control for the current season, and is a free agent at the end of the year.

The Pirates could move Volquez to the bullpen, and use him as the top starting depth when another injury comes up. That would create another tough decision in the bullpen, although this one might be a little easier than the rotation. The common sentiment is for Jeanmar Gomez to get designated for assignment when a roster spot is needed. However, Gomez hasn’t been bad this year. He has a 3.70 ERA and a 3.87 xFIP. The ERA is lower than his 3.35 mark last year, but the xFIP is slightly better than the 3.95 in 2013.

The only guy in the bullpen who has options, and would make sense to send down, is Jared Hughes. He’s been putting up some nice numbers, with a 2.20 ERA and a 3.82 xFIP. He definitely deserves to be in the majors. But the Pirates would be better off sending him down to Triple-A for a month and a half, keeping everyone else in the system, and calling Hughes up when they need a reliever, or when rosters expand on September 1st — whichever comes first.

Those are the moves I would make when Liriano returns. Volquez to the bullpen, and the top starting pitching depth option. Hughes to Triple-A, and the top bullpen depth option, or a September call-up. All of that is based on the numbers and the contract situations. Even with those considerations, it’s a tough decision. No matter what, you’re talking about demoting a starter who could start for most teams in baseball, and demoting a reliever who would be in the majors for most teams in baseball.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow Struggle, Andrew Lambo Homers

**Two Million Dollar Arms Make Their Debut For the GCL Pirates

**Minor Moves: Tyler Waldron to the DL, John Holdzkom Promoted to Indianapolis

**Pirates Claim Infielder Dean Anna From the Yankees

**What Would the Jeff Samardzija Trade Look Like For the Pirates?

**Matt Hague sees a spike in power

**Minor League Schedule: A Pair of Prospects Look to Get Back on Track

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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