The Pirates Can Contend in 2016, but Only If…
The Pittsburgh Pirates, the team I chose as my favorite when I was a six-year old in 1979, have finally become a consistently good team these past few years. They’ve not been able to get to the World Series, and 2016 could be more of the same — since the National League has no shortage of strong contenders. As many predicted, the Cubs have jumped out to a strong start with a 34-14 (.708) record. The Giants are at 32-20 (.615), in part due to successfully betting on a return to form for Johnny Cueto. The Nationals at 30-21 (.588) have Bryce Harper and some strong pitching of course, and the Mets at 28-21 (.571) have a loaded rotation too.
As of today, the Pirates have the same record as the Mets at 28-21 (.571), and are in line to make the playoffs as a wild-card team, as they are behind the Cubs by 6.5 games in the NL Central. There are some other teams that are around the .500 mark, but I don’t see the Phillies or Marlins as major threats — only the Cardinals if Wainwright, Martinez, and Wacha come around.
The Pirates have a strong lineup — highlighted by arguably the best outfield in baseball with McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco. Their infield is not full of stars, but is respectable: Jaso lacks power but is hitting .308 at 1B, Harrison can play anywhere and is hitting .321 with 7 SB as the primary 2B, Mercer is hitting a respectable .280 at SS, and Kang has hit .308 with 6 HR in 52 ABs since coming back from the major injury that ended his 2015 season. Catcher Cervelli doesn’t hit for power, and is hitting only .257 so far, but he has a .360 OBP. I like the bench depth too as they have several guys who can play various positions: David Freese (.280), Sean Rodriguez (.290), and Matt Joyce (.333). In fact, with Kang back, and with McCutchen under-performing so far this year, I think their lineup might actually do slightly better the remainder of the year than they have so far.
The Pirates bullpen remains anchored by closer Mark Melancon who has 16 saves and a 2.11 ERA. Tony Watson is a quality left-handed setup man, with a 2.08 ERA and only 11 hits allowed in 21.2 IP. And former closer Neftali Feliz is a solid right-handed setup man, with a 3.24 ERA and 21 K in 16.2 IP. The rest of the bullpen is not as consistent, but that is small potatoes compared to what worries me about the Pirates this year.
The consistent thread of the top NL teams are strong pitching rotations — and this is where the Pirates, for now, come up short. There is no doubt they have an ace in Gerrit Cole, the 25-year old has a 5-3 record and 2.53 ERA. He’s been a bit wilder than last year, posting a 1.294 WHIP, but I’m not worried about him.
Francisco Liriano, at 32 years old, I think would make a very respectably #4 guy in a playoff contender’s rotation. But for now he is being relied on as a #2, and while 52K in 52.1 IP look good, his 4.39 ERA and 1.471 WHIP do not.
Next up is Jon Niese, who again I’d be happy enough with as a #5 starting pitcher on this team, but he is the #3 guy instead. He has a nice 5-2 record, but his 4.42 ERA, 65 hits (12 HR) in 59 IP, and 1.424 WHIP are not strong enough when compared with the #3 hurlers on the other top NL teams.
While #4 and #5 starters are not as critical come playoff time, the idea that the Pirates have Juan Nicasio (4-4, 4.79 ERA, 1.383 WHIP) and Jeff Locke (3-3, 5.08 ERA, 1.539 WHIP) in those two spots does not scream “strong post season staff” to me. And getting 38-year old Ryan Vogelsong back from the DL (if he can come back from being hit in the head), won’t improve this situation.
That said, there is reason to think the Pirates can contend this year — even against the great staffs of the Cubs, Nationals, Mets, and others — and without needing to make any trades. And this is because the Pirates have arguably the best pair of AAA pitchers, both of whom I think are ready for a promotion to the Majors anytime the Pirates tire of Locke or others getting the call every five games.
First up I think will be 22-year old Tyler Glasnow. In 2013, at age 19 in A-ball he went 9-3, with a 2.18 ERA and 164 K in 111.1 IP. Then in 2014 he went 12-5 with 157 K in 124.1 IP and an amazing 1.74 ERA. Then last year, splitting time mostly between AA and AAA, he went 7-5 with a 2.39 ERA and 136 K in 109.1 IP. And so far this year at AAA Indianapolis it has been more of the same, as he is 4-2 in 10 starts, with a 2.25 ERA and 69 K in 56 IP. I say… enough already… bring him up and demote Locke to the bullpen!
But slotting Glasnow as a #2 starter in the rotation is not the only move they should make sometime this summer. Former first-round draft pick Jameson Taillon is also ready for the call, and would make a great #3 for the remainder of the season. Here the story is different. He showed promise but didn’t light the world on fire at age 21 in 2013 when between AA-AAA he posted a 5-10 record, 3.73 ERA, and 143 K in 147.1 IP. Tommy John surgery was needed, and that cost him his entire 2014 and 2015 seasons. But so far this year, at age 24 at AAA Indianapolis, he is scorching the league to the tune of a 3-2 record in 8 starts, a 1.82 ERA, 51 K in 49.1 IP, and only 5 walks allowed leading to a 0.811 WHIP.
As if those two highly-touted prospects weren’t enough, the Pirates have a third starter at AAA Indianapolis who is doing very well so far this year. 23-year old Chad Kuhl doesn’t have the strong strikeout numbers of Glasnow and Taillon, but in 2014 he went 13-5 with a 3.46 ERA in Class A ball, and then last year went 11-5 with an impressive 2.48 ERA in AA. So far this year… wow, he is 4-1 in 9 starts, with a 0.816 WHIP and an incredible 1.03 ERA. I don’t know what his future holds — but perhaps the Pirates could call him up this year as well, and he could be effective as a middle-reliever?
I know the way MLB rules are setup, teams have an incentive to keep future stars in the minors as long as possible, to delay when they will later be eligible for free agency. But for the Pirates to contend this year — first make the playoffs, then hopefully go farther in the playoffs if not make the World Series — they need to improve their starting rotation. A rotation of Cole, Liriano, Niese, Nicasio, and Locke is not good enough. But what about a rotation of Cole, Glasnow, Taillon, Liriano, and Niese? Yes, that is inserting two youngsters into high-pressure, September and post-season major league action. If it seemed like either might struggle, then I’d be fine with switching one of them with Liriano in the order (assuming he regains some control). Either way, if the Pirates make these moves later in the season… they should have a shot. And with so much great pitching in the top NL teams, it will make for some great games at the end of the year.