As the Pirates approach Spring Training, one big glaring hole remains. The starting rotation. The Pirates may not be done, and let’s hope not because this is not an awe inspiring group.
The #1 is Gerrit Cole. This is not a problem. The big man keeps doing well and throwing gas. No reason to expect any decline and maybe an increase in performance.
The #2 is Lirano. Again no reason to worry here. Lirano may suffer a small decline as age catches him, but he is a very effective lefty and gets big strikeouts. Strong rotation up front.
The #3 is Jon Niese. Niese is okay. He gets ground balls, and one would expect with the upgrade of the Pirates defense put up better numbers. He has postseason experience, which is nice. Yet, as a #3 this is not so good. He would be a great #5 starter, and an okay #4. But as the third best pitcher, your rotation is weak.
The #4 is Jeff Locke. Locke is what he is. He is going to have some good games. He is going to have some really bad ones. And usually he will eat up innings and it is up to your offense. He is a lefty, which can be a blessing on previous rotations, but this one is loaded with lefties, so that even that is now a bit of a curse. Locke would be acceptable as a #5, but even then you would think the position could be upgraded. Having someone lower than him in the rotation is awful. Locke is the guy you don’t mind skipping in a rotation, and you can’t do that if he is the #4.
The #5 is Ryan Vogelsong. Vogelsong is old and would be better as the long relief guy in the bullpen. I didn’t really understand this signing, and I still don’t. Perhaps they were desperate for a right handed pitcher. But desperate is never good. If he stays in the rotation all year the Pirates may miss the playoffs. He has postseason experience, but does not have enough skill left for that to matter much.
The immediate depth appears to be Kyle Lobstein. He is AAAA and not much else. He could do long relief for a stretch and maybe a spot start, but yikes! He is also a lefty. So using him to replace a struggling Vogelsong is problematic as a 4 lefty rotation has seldom been done, and would be reason to worry.
Now the Pirates need to sign as #3 quality starter to fix their problems. They have been linked to Justin Masterson rumors, which would be nice. He is about a #3, and has some upside you may think the Pirates can tap into. He is also right handed which would be nice. It could bump everyone down a slot to where they ought to be. Again you would think you could still upgrade the back end, but it would be workable and playoff able without the upgrade.
The other thing the Pirates could be banking on is an early call up for many players. If the Pirates can survive May and April with that rotation, they could start bringing heavy throwers up in June. Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon all will be there in AAA. Kingham and Taillon are recovering from injuries so that will impact timing. All three of those guys would be upgrades over the backend of that rotation. In fact a rotation of Cole, Lirano, Taillon, Glasnow, and Kingham is mouthwatering. And really Vogelsong could be cut without worry and Locke with only a little concern.
As great as that rotation sounds it is very young and that is not a great formula for playoff runs. Plus, it is dependent on everything going right, which is rare. Glasnow could use a little more control work, and Taillon is oft injured. Kingham is coming back from one, but is probably the best bet to be ready on time.