Monday, November 7, 2016

Pirates Pitching Will Determine Return to Contention

The Pittsburgh Pirates missed the MLB postseason this season for the first time in four years and will need to address their pitching depth in order to return.

After a drought of more than two decades, the Pittsburgh Pirates returned to the Major League Baseball postseason as an NL Wild Card team in 2013. 
The Bucs then returned to the playoffs in each of the next two seasons as well, again as one of the NL’s Wild Card clubs.
The Pirates won that Wild Card Game in 2013 over the Cincinnati Reds, but were eliminated in a tough five-game Division Series by the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The Pirates were then beaten in the Wild Card Game in both 2014 and 2015. This season, Pittsburgh slipped to their first losing record in four years. 
They finished in third place, 25 games behind the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs.
A look at the Pirates lineup reveals that with a couple of tweaks, the club could return to at least that NL Wild Card level of playoff contention. 
Add a legitimate power threat at first base, maybe a better catcher, and you can hit with most teams.
But the real key to any chance of the Pirates returning to the playoffs will be their pitching staff. 

The Pittsburgh staff ranked 18th in ERA, 22nd in Quality Starts and Strikeouts, and 26th in Batting Average Against in 2016.
Those numbers simply aren’t going to cut it for any club that has postseason aspirations.
The 2017 Pirates rotation is likely to feature three extremely talented youngsters at the top in Gerrit ColeJameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow.
Cole was the first overall pick back in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft out of UCLA. After reaching all of the heights predicted when his 2015 campaign resulted in an All-Star nod and a fourth place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting, this year was a major letdown.
Lost to injury in early June, Cole didn’t return until after the MLB All-Star break. He was then shut down for all but one brief appearance in the final month of the season. 
Altogether his season resulted in three DL stints, the final one perhaps the most troubling. He was shut down at the end with elbow troubles.
Once they were obviously out of any postseason challenge this year, shutting down Cole was a no-brainer. But now the problem with their potential ace is what to expect next year, and then on into the future.
Ray Searage and Gerrit had conversations about where Gerrit is mechanically and what was different this year from last year,” GM Neal Huntington said per triblive.com’s Rob Biertempfel.
“…what could work to allow him to get that 200-inning threshold to become that workhorse. There always some minor adjustments that we can make with guys to help them get a little bit better.”
Assuming that Cole can put his injury woes behind him, his talent should allow him to return to the level of a true ace in 2017.
Taillon is yet another injury issue. Another former high draft pick, Taillon was selected by the Bucs with the second overall pick the year prior to Cole.
 A series of injuries throughout his minor league career pushed back his development, and he finally made it to the big leagues this past season.
In his 2016 rookie debut, Taillon went 5-4 with a 3.38 ERA over 18 starts. He allowed 99 hits in 104 innings, and recorded an 85/17 K:BB ratio.
Those were encouraging numbers for a pitcher who turns 25 years old in a couple of weeks. But more encouraging perhaps was that he remained healthy and in the rotation all year after his early June promotion.
Injuries were also an issue for Glasnow, one of the most hyped arms in all of minor league baseball as the season got underway. 
The 23-year-old right-hander made two starts in July, then another two at the end of the season. In between he also made a handful of September appearances out of the bullpen.
If all three of these young arms are healthy and ready to compete in 2017, the Pirates are still going to need another arm or two, preferably an innings-eating veteran such as Jeremy Hellickson, who seems to be high on the wish list for at least a half-dozen teams.
Assuming everything falls into place perfectly with the rotation, Pittsburgh is still going to have to put together a competitive bullpen. Tony Watson is listed as the closer right now, but he is not ideal in that role.
The best arm in the bullpen this past season may have been 28-year-old Neftali Feliz. However, he is a free agent and could become a closer again with some team.
25-year-old Felipe Rivero, who came in the trade deadline deal of closer Mark Melancon with the Washington Nationals, may be the best arm in the pen.
Rivero, Watson, righty Juan Nicasio and lefty Antonio Bastardo are a good start, but this group needs one or two bigger arms at the back to truly contend.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are not catching the Cubs in 2017, or likely any time soon thereafter either. But they finished just eight games in the loss column behind the NL Wild Card teams. Making up that difference will depend on getting the pitching staff fixed.

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