By Jared Lankes
If the season started today, the Pirates rotation would shape out as Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, and likely Tyler Glasnow with Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, and Drew Hutchison behind them as depth. While the rotation doesn’t look bad by any stretch on the surface, there are certainly some big underlying issues that make the rotation very unstable. Let’s take a look at each starter and determine the question marks each one has.
1) Gerrit Cole: When healthy, Gerrit Cole is a top starter in the NL. However, 2016 proved that a pitcher’s health is fickle for even the best of pitchers. Cole was hurt multiple times in 2016 and was unable to get any sort of rhythm going because of it. While it has been stated that he will be ready to go to start spring training, there is always going to be skepticism over how he will return off of injury or if these more minor injuries are a prelude to a more major injury that could cause him to miss a year or two instead of a month or two. And for the Pirates, they can ill-afford their ace being hurt, ineffective, or both, as was proven last season.
2) Jameson Taillon: While Taillon had a great stretch in his first stint in the MLB, one must remember that he’s been injury-prone in the past. This proneness to injury and the fact that he’s a young pitcher might make the Pirates more careful with him throughout the 2017 season to keep him around the whole season instead of having to shut him down in September and losing a major asset. Plus, there is always the chance he gets hurt again, which would be devastating. Also, there is this weird sophomore slump thing in baseball that could certainly happen to Taillon if he’s not careful.
3) Ivan Nova: Nova was great for the Pirates in his time in 2016 and earned three more years with the team because of it. While he pitched well, some things don’t add up. His super low walk rate won’t keep up as that’ll return to more realistic levels, he still gets hit hard and may not benefit from as much “good luck”, and I could certainly see the home run numbers at least spike a bit. I don’t expect Nova to be fantastic, but he will be a solid starter. However, I don’t think he will be great enough, by himself, to make the rotation stable in the middle.
4) Chad Kuhl: Kuhl is an intriguing case. He pitched well enough to earn a rotation spot in 2017, but he has some issues. Firstly, he kind of slowed down late in the season, showing off his youthfulness and fatigue of not having that kind of workload before. That doesn’t make too many people confident in his ability to handle a 180-200 inning workload this year either. There’s also the case where he has troubles against lefties. He lacks an out pitch vs lefties and that might be an issue as teams can stack the deck with lefties against him when he starts, similar to what teams did against Juan Nicasio last year. Plus, his strikeout and ground ball rates didn’t exactly back him up as being a super redeeming quality of a starting pitcher in the MLB. All his qualities point to him being a bullpen pitcher, and he is a massive question mark in 2017.
5) Tyler Glasnow: Glasnow, while being a super prospect, is very unpolished. He showed that in his short amount of MLB time in 2016. While he is still working his way to being a great pitcher, I don’t think him at his current state is good enough to be in an MLB rotation for a team that wants to contend. He may be ready at some point, but I don’t believe Opening Day is that time. He also would get played the cautious card by the Pirates because he’s a young arm that hasn’t handled a big league workload yet or even came anywhere close to sniffing that mark.
6) The depth: The depth of Brault, Williams, and Hutchison, and eventually Nick Kingham is good, but it is what it is, just depth. Sure, they can spot start every now and again to get some guys breaks, especially the other youngsters, but each of the depth starters have their own issues. While I believe in what Trevor Williams can do and Kingham can still end up being very good, I am not big on Brault or Hutchison because I think they are both 6 or 7 starters or bullpen arms at their peak at this point. However, Brault does represent a lefty option for the rotation that the Pirates do not currently possess. But on the other hand, Brault lacks the necessary pitches in his arsenal to be a starting pitcher in the MLB and didn’t instill confidence in many in his couple of MLB starts.
Overall, the Pirates are riding with a rotation filled with righties who are young and unproven, injury-prone, or are middle-of-the-road, average rotation arms at best, or a combo of two or all three of these. The rotation is also filled with a ton of ifs and while every rotation has ifs, the Pirates rotation seems to have more than many others. Leaning on young guys, a guy that was good for two months with the Pirates that you hope continues it, and an ace coming off injuries might not be the best strategy.
Now, I know I’m being maybe a bit tough on the Pirates and looking at it as if everything is bad. It’s not. These pitchers all have great qualities, and there are always surprises. However, I just find it very difficult to be ultra confident in the rotation in its current state. The Pirates would benefit from adding a quality, veteran starter that can eat them up innings while being effective. I know it’s not the best market to find a guy like that, but the Pirates need to try their hardest because this rotation may not be goo enough on its own.