Without AJ Burnett, the rotation should consist of Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, who signed a one-year, $5 million contract in December. The Pirates’ backup depth is Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin; Jeanmar Gomez showed in 2013 that he can start if necessary, and Stolmy Pimentel didn't look out of place in the show, although the court is out on whether he best profiles as a starter or potential down-the-road closer.
And they'll need that reserve strength. Cole had a heavier than expected workload last year, Liriano has never posted back-to-back solid seasons, Morton and Rodriguez both have durability questions, and Volquez is a reclamation project. That's where the probable loss of AJ hurts
Burnett's WAR as a Buc was 3.0 in 2012 and 4.0 in 2013. Over the same span, Volquez's WAR was 1.1 in 2013, 0.4 in 2013 (Fangraphs). And in the Central, that three or four wins swing could be costly. To counter, the Bucs should have full seasons from Liriano, Cole, Morton and maybe Rodriguez, the baseball gods willing, and that will help pick up the AJ slack.
Jameson Taillon may join the big team this year and Kyle McPherson is expected to be ready for combat at some point later in the season, with Locke and Cumpton also joining the potential cavalry. But that leaves the Bucs with a lot of youth and mid-to-back end arms.
We don't foresee the starters as being as strong this year as last, unless Frankie, Charlie and Gerrit all come up with lights out years. Swapping out a top three pitcher like AJ for a backender has to show up in the loss column, so the onus will be on the pen and the bats.
The bullpen has fewer question marks. Jason Grilli, after knocking off the rust, picked up where he left off before being injured, though at 37 durability may be an issue.
Mark the Shark had some late season issues against righties; on the year, he held opposite side hitters to a .186 BA while same side guys hit a much stronger .286, flipping the norm. Some of it is due to his bread and butter cutter that devastates LH hitters, while luck played a role, too - righties had a .375 BABIP against him, lefties just .195. We'll see if that requires any adjustments to the way he goes after guys this season.
Tony Watson and Justin Wilson were strong bridge pitchers. The lineup behind them will be hotly contested. Vin Mazzaro, Byran Morris, Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel are all out of options. Jared Hughes is looking to regain his mojo after shoulder issues in 2013 affected his performance. Duke Welker and maybe Brandon Cumpton are knocking on the door, though both have options, which hurts their cause this year.
Bullpens are volatile; this year's Bucco version could continue to be the team's glue, or they could regress. Our guess is that if they don't get burned out (the Pirates 545-2/3 IP from the pen was fourth in MLB and led all playoff teams) is they should provide another solid season.
The future? The organization boasts several projectable young arms like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham and Luis Heredia, and the pipeline should begin to flow in 2015.
After 2014, two of the Pirates’ two left-handed starters, Francisco Liriano and Wandy
Rodriguez, will both be free agents, leaving Jeff Locke to work from that side. And the Pirate philosophy, given the dimensions of the home ballyard, is to load up with southpaws.
In house, they could stretch out Justin Wilson and hope that Andrew Oliver can find the plate. But look for the Bucs to add at least a veteran lefty to the roster then.