First Pitch: Looking at the Pirates Starting Pitching Depth in 2015 and Beyond

The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the off-season with a need for two starting pitchers. They filled those needs with A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, who both join Gerrit Cole to give the Pirates a good trio at the top of the rotation. Charlie Morton is right behind those three, and could be healthy by Opening Day. Finally, they’ll have Jeff Locke and Vance Worley fighting it out for the final spot.

Beyond those six pitchers, the Pirates have Clayton Richard, Brandon Cumpton, and Casey Sadler as early season depth. The top prospects who could join the team by mid-season include Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and Adrian Sampson. That gives the Pirates 12 starting options throughout the year, without even considering the potential for future additions this off-season.

But what about beyond the 2015 season? Not only did the Pirates need two starters in 2015, they also needed starters for the future. A lot of those starters were projected to come from within. The addition of Liriano means that they only have to focus on two rotation spots for the 2016-17 seasons, with Cole and Morton also under control during those years. Technically they have Locke and Worley under control through the 2018 seasons, although the focus here would be upgrading on those spots eventually.

Taillon, Kingham, and Sampson could arrive in 2015. As with any prospect, there’s no guarantee that those guys work out. The Pirates do benefit here by having several quality pitching prospects, increasing the chance that they’ll get a quality MLB starter. Tyler Glasnow is expected to join that group in 2016. A best case scenario has the mid-2016 rotation including Cole, Liriano, Taillon, Glasnow, and Kingham, with Sampson and Morton as backup plans.

Then you get to the 2017 season, and the Pirates could have a strong group all year. And the prospects could keep coming. The Bradenton rotation in 2015 should include Cody Dickson, Clay Holmes, and Luis Heredia. One or more could be options in 2017. All three have breakout potential, and the Pirates could end up getting at least one middle of the rotation guy from that group, which would only strengthen their future depth.

The good thing is that the Pirates will only need two of their prospects to work out for the 2016-17 seasons. A third prospect reaching his potential would mean they could trade Morton early. If they’re very fortunate, and have a rotation of Cole, Glasnow, Taillon, Kingham, and Sampson all reaching their potential (or some other pitching prospect or starting pitching option we’re not talking about now), then they could end up dealing Liriano before his final year.

In short, the Pirates have spent a lot of money in the draft on pitching. They’ve done a great job finding value on the free agent market. All of that is starting to come together, to the point where the Pirates are starting to get into an enviable position with their pitching depth. That opens up a lot of favorable possibilities, with number one being the potential for a great rotation that could have more strong candidates than spots.

Links and Notes

**The 2015 Prospect Guide is complete, and has been sent to the publisher. I’ll be checking the proof copy tomorrow, and will have an update on the shipping and release times at some point during the day. If you haven’t placed your order yet, you can do so here.

**Francisco Liriano’s Contract Details

**Notes: Ray Searage on Cole and Morton; Holdzkom’s Focus, Polanco in Right Field

**Winter Leagues: Alen Hanson Makes a Brief Return to the Lineup, Valle Leaves With Hand Injury

**Contract Details For Radhames Liz and Updated 2015 Payroll Numbers

  • looking pretty good

  • I still think they need to sign one more established starter but my guess is what we see is about what we are going to get .

    • Certainly doesn’t fit your “established starter” criteria, but Brandon Morrow getting only $2.5m guaranteed seems like a missed opportunity.

      The Pirates have plenty of payroll room, and could use Morrow in the pen as well.

      • Just a guess, but I have to think the Bucs pitching brain trust has done pretty thorough due diligence on Morrow and didn’t like what they saw.

    • The Pirates need a 1st basemen more than they need another pitcher at this point in time.

      • Well I agree they also need a first baseman but if I had to choose because of payroll issues I would taking pitching every time . I am a real believer in the old saying you can’t have enough pitching .

  • Nice to someone who wrote for Pirates Prospectus for a time getting some additional recognition.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/updating-prospect-valuations/

    • Interesting work. Thanks for posting that.

      Putting on my rose-colored glasses, going simply by the comparison studies over two extended periods, that implies there’s a 90% chance of Polanco at least holding his own, if not doing significantly better. And Liriano has a better than 50% chance of being a solid buy.

      I’d like to buy into that please.

  • When I look at SP going into a season, I expect to lose one starter before the season and one during the season. I’d like 6 guys ready to go out the shoot, plus a couple of others that are nearly ready.

    2015: Liriano, Cole, Burnett, Locke, Worley, and Morton would be my first 6, with Richards, Cumpton, Sadler, Liz, and Pimentel as possibilities. We look good for 2015. I wouldn’t count on Taillon, Kingham, or Sampson at all, They would have to dominate AAA to earn a spot.

    2016: Liriano, Cole, Morton, Locke, Worley, and Kingham would be my first 6, with Taillon and last years possibilities along with Glasnow as depth. I would attempt to hold Taillon down in AAA until the June/July date to maximize his service time with the Pirates.

    2017: Liriano, Cole, Morton, Kingham, Taillon, and Worley or Locke (one to be traded?). By this point, the depth is completely unpredictable. There could be new reclamation projects and new prospects that we don’t even know about

    Pitching is so unpredictable with injuries and varying performance that it is futile to look more than a year ahead with any detail. I agree with Tim that the Pirates look to be set on depth for many years. I don’t see us needing to spend big on a free agent pitcher anytime in the near future.

  • Well done.

    Really makes you appreciate how important these reclamation pitchers have been in making up for painfully poor drafting and development early on.

  • I am just happy that we currently have seven guys beyond our current project top 5, who can possibly fill-in effectively when someone goes down for 15 days or more.

    …………And that we have some ‘younguns’ coming up who will potentially be ‘horses’. Of course, they could become Paul Wagners, too, lol.

    You can never have a) too much pitching or b) too many pitching prospects.

  • Why do we think we’d need to upgrade Worley as a 5th starter? At his price and his production, we couldn’t do better as a 5th starter

    • Great point Y2. I wonder about those type comments myself.

    • There’s no need to upgrade on him right now. But eventually they will have prospects who cost less than him, and will have a higher upside. That’s the way you’d want to upgrade over his spot.

      • Knee-jerk reaction was to question how you saw Kingham replacing Morton in a best case scenario…I’d be very much surprised if Nick Kingham is a better pitcher than Charlie Morton in 2016…but on second read got the impression you were hinting at Kingham replacing Morton for less money that could be used elsewhere. (Glasnow, in a best case scenario, should definitely be an improvement on Morton)

        Morton’s extension looks better and better, but that’s still a decent chunk of change that could be used on another position.

        • “Morton’s extension looks better and better,”

          Morton’s career high with Bucs over any two-year period is 2.6 WAR, over his last two seasons. Prior to that, his best was 1.9 over two years. And before that 1.6. Bucs owe him $12 million between 2015-16. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you imply.

          The guy HAS to stay healthy. I hope he does. Best I can tell, he’s in uncharted territory. I cannot think of another pitcher who’s had both hips worked on in addition to a TJ.

          • Brett Anderson hasn’t pitched more than 100 innings in four years and just signed for $10m with $4m more coming if he actually pitches a full season. This is 2014 Major League Baseball.

            The team control him for under $10m/yr through 2017. What do you think you’re gonna be able to buy for $10m in 2017?

            • I get your point, and if Chad Billingsley, Gavin Floyd and Morrow get signed for more than Morton, then your point will have a ton of merit. But for the moment, it’s just Anderson and the Dodgers. They’re an outlier with the wherewithall to gamble large.

              I still do love the joke, “Chad Billingsley, Brett Anderson and Gavin Floyd walk into a bar. And spend 200 days on the DL because of it.”

          • The cost of 1 WAR is roughly around 6-7 million right now, so even if he were to produce at 1.6 (which is a pretty large decline to many years ago) he likely is still worth what he makes. If he is anywhere near a 2 WAR guy that pitches 100+ innings (even he manages that most years) he is a steal.

            • Are you defining simply outperforming a contract by a minimal amount a “steal”?

              I like Morton. And if he’s healthy, outperforming his contract should be no issue. I’m simply saying his injury history is not comforting and I wouldn’t plan on him for more than 150 IP per and maybe 1.5-1.6 WAR each year. If he does that, he ends up on the positive side of the contract – but hardly a “steal” at $12 mill over two years. AJ turning in a 2.5 WAR at $8.5 mill would constitute a “steal”. Worley was a steal. Volquez not so much.

              But more importantly, if Chuck is healthy this year, then he is a “steal” for 2015 and his $8 million 2016 contract becomes very tradeable.

              • No, what i actually said was that if he were to slide pretty far from his current form he still “manages” to be of even value. Thus, if he doesnt slide back he is well above making even on his value. Well above being, for me, very good value. A 2 WAR player should be making 13+ million, and Morton would be making 8 this year. He is, unless he reverts to Morton of 3+ years ago, saving the team roughly 5 million in value. Even if he isnt healthy and is the usual Morton in terms of health, he has still been near a 2 WAR pitcher. I dont plan on more than 150 IP, but you say if he doesnt hit that he gets 1.5 ish WAR. And at that rate, he still saves the team a few million. The team has, somehow, been able to get pitchers to sign deals that overall save them 2-4 million in value. That, along with the value of our defensive philosophy, is a large reason we are a playoff team.

                • This is pretty much what I was getting at.

                  The Pirates simply cannot pay the going rate for a win on the free agent market and expect to build a good team. Major League Baseball is not structured in a way that makes that possible.

                  With Morton, there is a very good chance they’re getting a better pitcher than they could on the free agent market, and that is absolutely valuable to a team with limited resources.

              • Keep in mind the reason the Pirates made the playoffs on great half seasons by Liriano Locke and to a lesser extent Morton. The real problem is stashing so many options. If Morton is ready opening day and no one else is injured Locke has to squish into a crowded BP.

                Not the worst problem but precludes any more MLB signings.

  • I don’t think the Pirates would trade Liriano to open a spot for Kingham or Sampson. The Pirates are trying to win championships

  • Ok, I hate to ruin the day, but does anyone want to put odds that Francisco Liriano plays out his entire contract through the 2017 season with the Pirates without injury, trade etc, etc, etc.?

    • Can’t imagine they’d move him unless they had a viable replacement ready (which they perfectly well may! and that would be a good thing, not a bad thing!)

      • That was partially my point with younger, talented and “cheaper” options in the pipeline-especially in 16 & 17. I also worry about injury.

    • To quote Jack Reacher, “Hope for the best, assume the worst.”

      It was pretty clear to me from Neal’s comments at Pirate Fest that we’re unlikely to see Taillon until very late 2015, if at all. Kingham had a great start at Indy, poor finish (4.99 ERA over final 10 starts). Right now he’s not even a threat to take Cumpton’s place out of ST. Glasnow still has control issues and hasn’t sniffed AAA yet. So let’s just assume the worst and we only see a glimpse of Taillon/Kingham in 2015 and same for Glasnow in 2016.

      OTOH, there’s quality veteran presence this year and next, and if the offense stays as solid as it was last year, there’s not a ton of need to bring up the kids quickly, save for injuries to MLB rotation. I don’t see Liriano going anywhere in next three years. If Morton stays healthy through 2015, he should have solid value for a late season/offseason trade.

      And there might be surprises. At Pirate Fest, Clint suggested the pitching magicians would fix Lincoln (although I’m dubious). And a forgotten guy I think might play a key role with the 2015 Bucs… Kyle McPherson.

      • McPherson is a free agent.

        • Doesn’t change my opinion.

          • I’d almost guarantee he wont play a key role with the team this year though. That’d mean he gets singed and outdoes both Locke and Cumpton basically all in ST. PIT, for good and bad, seems to go with guys they trust and have done well for them. Meaning Worley likely has the 4th spot with the team not needing a 5th man more than once or twice before Morton comes back. McFear would be a decent AAA injury insurance policy.

    • Better odds Liriano completes 3 years than Lester finishes 6. That’s for sure.

  • Obviously, there’s the usual caveat about prospects working out, but 2 other things I’m wondering:

    1. When the time actually comes, will the Pirates really turn over so much of their rotation to youth? Or will there always be a vet or 2 in the mix. (Although, by 2016 and 2017, Cole will be considered a vet!!)

    2. I believe Dickson is the only lefty of that group, right (or am I missing somebody)? Once Liriano is gone, and say some of the prospects work out, would they go with an all-righty rotation?

    I will be curious to see the future course of action of the Pirates. No matter what happens, it’s going to be a fun decade!

  • You are a moron
    December 16, 2014 8:09 am

    Incredible stuff. When will Tim get some play on the awards circuit?

  • This article illustrates there will be tremendous competition for spots in the rotation as soon as the middle of this season and continuing for the foreseeable future. Competition will undoubtedly cause some of these prospects to raise their game while simultaneously driving the non-aces of the Pirates rotation to pitch well enough to keep their spots in the rotation, too.
    Competition not only raises the level of play, but also gives Pirates brass options to overcome injury/performance issues, and if necessary, make trade(s) to bolster weak areas of the roster.
    Pirates are seeing the fruits of their labors of drafting and “overpaying” for projectable HS, and to a lesser extent, College Pitchers. And us fans are the lucky ones who get to enjoy it.

  • William Wallace
    December 16, 2014 7:34 am

    I like the pipeline line. The Liriano move is an excellent transition to these younger arms. I still have concerns about Taillon and what he will be like when he starts to pitch again. He is a very intelligent man and I believe that he will learn what will work and what will not work as it pertains to arm slot and types of pitches that impact his arm. I really would like to see some body of work before we can truly pencil him into 2016 rotation.

  • As I and others have been saying for quite some time now, the pipeline from minors to majors if finally laid in full and will start yeilding dividends starting in 2015. This looks to be an ongoing trend for the bucs for at least the next several years, both pitching wise and positionally. Good time to be a pirates fan ain’t it?

    • pb: And, Tim did not even get to guys like Neal Kozikowski, Trey Supak, Mitch Keller, Tyler Eppler, and Gage Hinsz. I remember those dark days when our only offseason pitching conversation was when Bullington or JVB would be ready to pitch in the majors. And, the answer to that question was NEVER! However, having it on paper is one thing – getting these guys into the major league rotation and doing well is a different story altogether.

      • THAT comment just sent shivers down my back ! You just had to remind me, didn’t you emjay ?

        • I wonder how much sleep JVB loses over not sticking with being a power-hitting outfielder.

          • Probably plenty bucs. I actually saw him used to PH in SS ball in Williamsport by the way. And I also watched him pitch in Altoona a lot, and it was pretty obvious that he wasn’t ever going to be pitching successfully in MLB.

      • I tried to stick to guys who have a shot at being up when Liriano is here. The guys you mentioned are all wild cards. Great to have in the system, but you can’t count on any of them right now.

      • That’s the really nice thing about having multiple choices in the system, the pirates no longer have to hope and pray that the one good prospect pans out. Also with the amount and level of talent in the system now it creates competition as well as a learning situation from guys who are just as good or better than you. And finally yes indeed I do remember those days the same as you, with a shiver and a shudder followed closely by a groan. Glad they are OVER! Lol

      • It’s kinda like having Burnett JVB Lincoln and Bobby Bradley all sitting in AA/AAA at the same time. Hopefully better health luck but very glad Worley/Locke are ahead of them.

  • At least Taillon got his 1st TJ out of the way, unlike Harvey, Fernandez, et.al.

  • Very excited for the future of the rotation! By 2016-17 we could have two Aces (Taillon and Cole) a solid number 2 (Liriano) and two solid mid-rotation options (Kingham and Glasnow) with number 2 potential. But what does this mean for the Morton extension? Midseason trade come 2016?

    • Yeah I think if Taillon and Kingham both work out you will see Charlie traded at some point. Worley and Locke could end up moved as well, especially if Glasnow fulfills his potential.The pitching in this organization looks outstanding!! The Pirates are in great position to be at or near the top of the division for at least the next 5 years. I think 2015 is this group’s first division title. As we sit right now, I am predicting 95 wins!

      • cs: In 2014 Locke and Worley combined for 38 Starts, a record of 15-10 and an ERA around 3.30. Both are 27, I think both are making the league minimum, and both have 4 years of team control remaining.

        • If that doesnt make Pirates fans just a little giddy, i give. Having those guys as “maybe we use them as the 5th man” is neato.

  • Tim an entire article on the future of each position would be very informative and enjoyable I think.

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