We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.
Few teams got quite as much from their rotation as the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, and repeating that success will be paramount if they hope to win their first division title since 1992, finally avoiding the coin-flip of a Wild Card game. Last year’s rotation threw 967.1 innings, seventh in baseball, and they backed a 3.53 ERA up with a 3.34 FIP, good for the sixth-highest Wins Above Replacement among all major league rotations.
That group boasted a sky-high ground-ball rate and did well to suppress home runs as a result, and their primary subtraction was the only pitcher in the group with a fly-ball tendency. Gone is J.A. Happ and perhaps the Pirates Pixie Dust they sprinkled him with, with the lefty hoping his newfound approach can produce results in Toronto, too. A.J. Burnett is gone, too, leaving the Pirates preciously thin on starters with initialed names.
Of course, there’s still a lot to like at the top, some intriguing arms on the way, and what could wind up being one of the better relief squads in the National League.
Cole has established himself as a top-10 fantasy starter following three remarkably consistent seasons, posting a 3.07 ERA and 2.89 FIP over 463.1 career innings so far. He strikes out nearly a batter an inning, got stingy with the walks in 2015, and pairs a low fly-ball rate with a muted home run per-fly ball ratio. His slider grew even filthier with greater usage last season, another reason to believe his 2016 could be closer to 2015 (2.60 ERA) than the two years prior.
Liriano, meanwhile, has moved from being one of the most frustratingly inconsistent starters in baseball to a steady hand in the number two spot. Staying on the mound is a minor concern, as he’s still yet to pitch 100 innings in a season, but he’s also made at least 26 starts in four consecutive years. He strikes out a ton of batters and keeps the ball on the ground, helping make up for some control issues and putting him on the fringes of the top-25 at the position.
Do these guys need their own subheading? Probably not, but I needed to get that bad pun in. Shooters gotta shoot. Anyway, those two probably line up somewhere in the rotation, though the job security of one may be tenuous.
Niese was acquired for Neil Walker back in December, giving the Pirates a season to look at him on a $9-million salary before deciding on a pair of reasonable team-option years. He has more value to a real baseball team than a fantasy one, as his strikeout rate has pretty steadily declined to the point that he’s no longer a great spot-start option. Still, as the Pirates prefer, he keeps the ball on the ground, having posted a career-low 24.7 percent fly-ball rate in 2015 (though he was the victim of a career-worst HR/FB rate). Despite the ground-ball tendency, the Pirates weren’t a particularly great defense last year, and Niese is one of several hoping that changes in the infield.
Locke, meanwhile, might need to…locke down his rotation spot with a strong spring. He has two seasons of stable back-end rotation production under his belt, but some production-peripheral disagreement early in 2015 – his worst BABIP since a partial 2012 and his lowest strand-rate ever – probably leaves him as the number four or five arm. He bounced back mid-season but struggled again down the stretch, with hitters able to get around on his offerings with serious pull power. Given the options behind him, fantasy owners should probably hope a higher-upside arm pushes him mid-season.
Vogelsong for Us Rejects
Look, Ryan Vogelsong was a great story upon his return in 2011 and he experienced some success with San Francisco, but he’s a 38-year-old on a cheap contract who’s in Pittsburgh to eat innings until the arms behind him are ready. He doesn’t miss bats with anything except a decent curve, he doesn’t have elite control, and little in his profile suggests he’ll return to being a 4.00-ERA arm. But he’s there, and that will be fine so long as the Pirates are ready to shift him to the bullpen should any other arms prove ready.
The most intriguing name potentially pushing for time is that of Tyler Glasnow, a fifth-round pick in 2011 who’s become the organization’s top prospect. An intimidating 6-foot-7 righty, Glasnow’s posted double-digit strikeout rates across the minors and the sub-3.00 – and sometimes sub-2.00 – ERAs you’d expect with that many whiffs. The Pirates will want him to show that the control issues that crept back in once promoted to Triple-A have been dealt away with, and they may protect his service-time, but he’ll be a must-add once he gets the call.
Also on the radar if he gets the call is Jameson Taillon. The 24-year-old hasn’t pitched since 2013 due to Tommy John surgery, but prior to that procedure, he was the Pirates’ top prospect. The No. 2 overall pick from the 2010 draft will probably be brought along slowly, though he says the team is treating him like any other pitcher– he’s already made a two-inning appearance in an intrasquad game. Owners will need to see how he looks, but the pre-injury book on him was that of a roughly average starter out of the gate.
Speaking of Tommy John, Nick Kingham would have projected to figure into the rotation this season had he not underwent the same surgery himself in late May. Lefty Jesse Biddle, acquired In February, is a little closer to returning but his strikeout rate absolutely cratered across two levels in 2015, a pretty major concern.
Elsewhere, Kyle Lobstein was purchased from the Tigers and should pencil in as the bullpen’s second lefty and a potential swingman if needed, assuming a shoulder issue is behind him. He doesn’t throw hard but has kept the ball down and in the park throughout his minor-league career, fitting the Pirate modus operandi. For fantasy owners, a complete lack of swing-and-miss stuff renders him off the radar.
One final name I should probably let go is Cory Luebke. An intriguing breakout in 2011 gave way to injury in 2012, and Luebke only just returned to the minors last season, throwing seven innings in June before getting shut down again. And guess what? He already has a strained hamstring in camp. Nearly 31 years old now, it’s probably high time I let his 2011 go, but I’d be first in line to take a streaming flier if he unexpectedly got a call. For the memories.
The Pirates bullpen looks pretty straight-forward given the three seasons Mark Melancon has turned in. The Allegheny River Strangler has thrown 70-plus innings in each, with his ERA topping out at 2.23, and he’s blown just 11 saves in that span with an obscene 123:18 shut down-to-meld down ratio. He’s awesome, despite lacking closer velocity, and he remained solid even with a decline in strikeout rate and a slight increase in walk rate last year.
But we have to bring the depth up, in part because of that minor slide and Melancon’s low closer Z-score profile, and because the names behind him are solid.
I mean the names, literally. Arquimedes Caminero? Dude should close just for the potential fantasy team names he could provide. And also because he averaged 97.9 MPH on his fastballs last season, mixing a four-seamer with a sinker and a cutter, and a splitter that looks good in a smaller sample. It was a really encouraging 2015 for the long-time prospect despite a 3.80 FIP, and while reliever success can be fleeting, the 28-year-old would be the necessary add if Melancon went down or stumbled.
Tony Watson has been elite – and mostly split-free – at the back end for three years now, too, but the Pirates are thin on lefty relievers and could be hesitant to shift him into an exclusive ninth-inning role. Jared Hughes lurks with back-to-back strong ERAs that were dependent on excellent ground-ball rates rather than swing-and-miss stuff, but again, he doesn’t really fit the closer bill. Keep an eye on Juan Nicasio, too – he has 95-MPH heat, posted a strong strikeout rate in his first full season out of the bullpen, and gave up very little hard contact last year. Neftali Feliz is around, too, if you haven’t had enough of that roller coaster.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.