There are two similarities in the top four of the rotation; all are ground ball guys, and all are under team control beyond this season. A quick look:
- Gerrit Cole: Cole, 25, went 19-8/2.60, posting career highs with 32 starts and 208 innings while notching 202 strikeouts last season. The performance earned him his first All Star nod. He's a horse, but to reach the Cy Young level, he probably needs to add one more pitch to his fastball/slider one-two and become a bit more effective in pitching to contact (for a power arm, he has a career 49% ground ball rate). He's easily the top dog of the rotation, and just a gnat's eyelash away from being elite. Cole should be around for a while, Scott Boras willing; he doesn't start his arb seasons until next year.
|Gerrit Cole (photo Getty Images)|
- Francisco Liriano: Frankie, 32, has settled comfortably into the two spot, first behind AJ and now Gerrit. In his three Bucco seasons, he's won 35 games, pitched to a 3.26 ERA with 9.6 K/per nine IP and a 1.214 WHIP. Like Cole, he could stand to be more efficient with his pitch count; his control is much improved over his past years, but still lands him in hot water when he needs early strikes against disciplined lineups. A healthy campaign would also be a plus, though he's never been the workhorse type - in his 12 MLB seasons, he's never broken the 200 IP barrier. Frankie still offers a killer slider with a 50%+ ground ball rate and is signed through the 2017 season.
- Jon Niese: The Bucs got a workmanlike rotation arm (113 starts, 3.65 ERA from 2012-15) in Niese, 29, who was the odd man out for a Mets staff featuring Bartolo and the young guns. He's unlikely to match the AJ/JA production, but is a nice upgrade over the up-and-down Charlie Morton and as a career 50% ground ball guy, he fits right into the Bucco scheme. Last year, he threw more off speed stuff and fewer fastballs than his norm, and even dabbled with a slider. We think Uncle Ray may apply the KISS formula to his tool kit this year and feature his sinker and cutter. Niese has two club options, worth $10M & $11M for 2017-18, so he's under team control for three seasons.
- Jeff Locke: Locke, 28, is working with Ray Searage on simplifying his motion; we hope something turns the trick. He's put together stretches of very nice ball - he's 25-24 over the past three seasons - but can't find day-in, day-out consistency. Locke has cut his walk rate down in the past couple of years, but still has a tendency to nibble rather than attack hitters. True to form, he's good at inducing grounders, with a 51% rate. He's running out of time to find the answer; the farm arms are about knocking on Pittsburgh's door. The Redstone Rocket has two more years of arb after signing for $3.025M this season.
|Time for Jeff to cut bait (photo Dave Arrigo/Pirates)|
- Ryan Vogelsong: Vogelsong, 38, was an out-of-the-blue signing. In the past three years, he's been anywhere from meh to blah, doesn't get ground balls, and his K and walk ratios are ordinary. But the Pirates are quite good at identifying guys who are a tweak away from competence, especially sinker ball tossers, and we assume that's the case here. V-Song was mostly OK until the dog days last season after a rough April, but he's still the most likely guy to be looking for a chair when the Tyler Glasnow musical chairs shuffle begins. He's inked to a one year/$2M deal.
- Tyler Glasnow: Glasnow, 22, throws a mid-nineties heater to go with a plus curve, and is the Bucs top prospect along with being a consensus top 25 MiLB player. But he only has eight starts at Indy, and the Pittsburgh FO likes to season their guys before their call (and keep that pesky service time clock from ticking). Starting him at Indy, though, does ring more of polishing up than saving dollars; Tyler has walked 4+/9 innings in his minor league career, and needs work on the finer points like holding runners. If all goes to plan, he should be a mid-June to All-Star break addition to the staff.
- Kyle Lobstein: Lobstein, 26, was a depth guy for Detroit, and may be in line to be the sixth starter in Pittsburgh, at least for a couple or three months. In 2014 and early 2015, he tossed to a 4.34 ERA as a Tiger back-ender with an 88 MPH heater and a cutter, change and hook in his arsenal. He had shoulder inflammation that landed him on the DL for three months and was basically a BP pitcher after returning, so his arm strength is an obvious question mark. He was a second rounder in 2008 as a high school hurler, and the Bucs sent cash to the Tigers for his services after he was DFA'ed. Lobstein, who has two remaining options and just one year of MLB service time, will likely begin at Indy to stay stretched out if needed unless he's carried north as a long man in the pen.
- Juan Nicasio: Our guesstimate has Nicasio, 29, working as the multi-role guy from the pen beloved by Clint. But the Pirates have already said that they're planning on stretching him out as a starter in camp, so he remains in the mix if the razor thin staff takes a hit early on. JC was only converted to reliever full time last year and has 70 MLB starts under his belt, although, as generally the case, all his pitches picked a couple of ticks from the pen. The Bucs signed him to a one year/$3M deal after he posted a 1-3/ 3.86 slash with a save for the Dodgers in 52 relief appearances (one start). He averaged 10K per nine featuring a heater that averages 95 and touches 98, offset by five walks per game. Nicasio has one more arb year left.
Next Up - Heading to Camp: Starting Pitching - Arms On the Way & Depth