The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t clinched anything yet. But it’s becoming quite clear that this team is going to the playoffs. They currently sit 2.5 games back in the NL Central, 2.5 games back from the first Wild Card spot, and 2.5 games in the lead for the second Wild Card spot. The Milwaukee Brewers are the only threat to their playoff chances, and the red-hot Pirates play Milwaukee at home this weekend. They follow that with four games against the Braves, and three against the Reds, with both teams struggling lately.
It’s not impossible for the Pirates to improve their chances of winning the division, but with a week and a half to go, it seems improbable. They’ll most likely be playing in the Wild Card game, and the question of who should pitch that game is simple: Francisco Liriano. He’s the ace the Pirates needed all season, and he turned into that ace after the All-Star break, continuing his run tonight. In a one game playoff, there’s no one who should be starting over Liriano.
But what about if the Pirates advance beyond the Wild Card game, or find a way to win the division? Who will be in the playoff rotation?
Liriano is obvious. I think Gerrit Cole is obvious as well. He hasn’t been a top of the rotation starter this year, but he’s been a good pitcher. It would be great if he took it to the next level during the post-season, much like he did last year in the NLDS. Even with his current performance, he’s worth a rotation spot.
After an off-season with plenty of predictions that he’d be the first starting pitcher replaced in the rotation, Edinson Volquez has also become one of the obvious picks for a playoff rotation. The results from Volquez have been great, although the advanced metrics say that he probably won’t continue at this pace. As long as he is going at this pace, the Pirates should stick with him.
That leaves one more spot up for grabs, with three more starting options. Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton are current members of the rotation, with Vance Worley recently sent to the bullpen. I’d have to think that Worley would be out of the mix, since he was the first guy removed from the rotation when Morton returned. Worley actually has the best numbers out of those three, although it’s close. Worley has a 3.64 xFIP, while Morton and Locke are both at 3.78. You could make the argument that Worley should be starting in the playoffs over those two.
The issue with Morton is that we don’t know how healthy he will be the rest of the year. He looked good on Tuesday night, although that’s one start against a last place team. This doesn’t say how he will do against a playoff team.
Locke’s issue is a lack of consistency, and a sudden loss in control that has led to a 4.06 BB/9 ratio in the second half. Locke has had some good outings, but he’s also mixed in some bad outings, and looks like a number four starter overall. That’s not ideal for a playoff rotation.
The Pirates could play the matchups here. If they’re facing a team that struggles against the sinker, go with Morton. A team that struggles against lefties? Locke. A team that can’t hit the cutter? Worley.
Overall, the potential playoff rotation this year doesn’t look nearly as good as last year’s group. Last year the Pirates had three pitchers who were pitching like top of the rotation guys. Liriano was in that group, along with Cole and A.J. Burnett. Now they’ve got one top of the rotation guys, and several #3-4 starters. The good thing is that with their offense this year, they won’t need the same quality of pitching that they saw last year. All they need is a group of starters who can keep them in games, and you could argue that they’ve got three starters who can do that right now, along with three more starters who could do that in the right matchups.
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