The Pirates starting pitchers were damn good last year. They posted a 3.27 ERA, good for third best in baseball and the National League, and delivered an intriguing mix of strikeouts and ground balls. If the entire staff was one pitcher, it would be exactly the type I love. A.J. Burnett may be gone, but the rotation is still composed of a high upside group.
Francisco Liriano…ace? Who ever expected to see that label slapped on the lefty again after his disastrous two seasons prior? All it took was his luck neutralizing (actually, it probably tilted too far the other way this time) and his control rebounding back to his pre-2011 levels. His ground balls returned as well, which helped ensure he wasn’t going to allow more than a homer every nine innings again. While, we cannot expect another ERA hovering around 3.00 without another decent heaping of luck spread around, there’s little reason not to expect a strong follow-up. With both a devastating slider and changeup, he’ll continue to rack up the Ks.
Sophomore Gerrit Cole will slot in behind Liriano and the thought is likely that Cole will soon be taking over the ace role. Despite possessing a 96 mph average fastball, his skills were underwhelming at Triple-A before his promotion, as he struck out just 17.5% of batters faced. He also started out slow in the strikeout department with the Pirates, but then he whipped out his curve ball and his strikeouts surged. With a ground ball tendency, he’s a slightly toned down version of Liriano, offering both lower walk and strikeout rates. He actually owns the holy skills trifecta. He’s going to be a good one, but most expect this, so he’ll likely cost you a pretty penny.
Veteran southpaw magic Wandy Rodriguez will be returning from forearm and elbow pain that cut his season short. Apparently, he is feeling fine, but one can never really breathe easy until the season ends and we could look back knowing that nothing went wrong. Wandy’s strikeout rate has dipped for two years running, but he’s offset that by displaying improved control. SIERA thinks he’s become pretty meh and with the injury risk hanging over his head, it’s probably best to steer clear unless he comes at a significant discount in NL-Only leagues.
Charlie Morton is relevant! As a Tommy John surgery survivor, Morton’s fastball velocity jumped, his strikeout rate surged and he ensured that no worms would dare peak out from underneath the earth during his starts. Unfortunately, he relies on his two-seamer far too often to have any true strikeout rate upside, and while his curve ball was good for a change, it was only a bit above average at inducing swinging strikes. His changeup stinks, though it does generate grounders by the bushel. There’s not a whole lot of fantasy value upside here, but he should easily post another sub-4.00 ERA, earn value in NL-Only leagues and remain a streamer option at the very least in mixed leagues.
After their success with Liriano, the Pirates decided to try to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time with the signing of Edinson Volquez. I had been a fan of Volquez since the 2008 preseason when he ended up breaking out and even introduced the Volquez Support Group back in 2011. But times they are a-changin’. I always just assume that pitchers with poor control will improve it at some point. And Volquez eventually did, to a point, as his walk rate dropped below 10% for the first time in his career last year. His above average ground ball rate came along with it as well. Unfortunately, his fastball velocity declined a mile per hour, after remaining extraordinarily consistent since 2006 (his average velocity sat between 93.6 and 93.8 every single year from 2006 to 2012!). The velocity loss led to career lows in both SwStk% and strikeout rate. And his best pitch, the changeup, suddenly saw a precipitous drop in SwStk%.
Volquez’s luck should be better in Pittsburgh as he wasn’t nearly as bad as his 5.71 ERA would seem to indicate. I’d still be willing to throw a buck at him in NL-Only leagues, but there’s just too much to fix here to be any more bullish.
After a fairy-tale first half, Jeff Locke‘s magic dust ran out and the swinging pendulum caused him to get demoted to the minors. With a strong ground ball tendency and the potential for a near average strikeout rate, his skill set isn’t that bad. His control has been better, so that should improve, but there’s really no place for him in the rotation at the moment. I wouldn’t touch him in mixed leagues, but if he does enter the rotation at some point, he’s worth a look in NL-Only leagues, as long as you don’t expect anywhere close to a 3.52 ERA again.
It would be silly to complete this article without at least mentioning top prospect Jameson Taillon, so now he gets his mention. The 22-year-old threw 37 Triple-A innings, so his performance and the health of the Pirates rotation should dictate how long he’ll stay down on the farm, since he shouldn’t need a whole lot of additional experience. His results in the minors have been good, but not great, though it’s been a bit disappointing that his SwStk% at Triple-A was only marginally better than the league average, while his mark was actually below average at Double-A last year. He doesn’t excite me just yet and I wouldn’t count on him for mixed league value unless he makes major strides during his Triple-A time this season.
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