It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.
The biggest change for the Pirates rotation in 2015 is not a pitcher but the loss of catcher Russell Martin. Even Martin’s sterling reputation might undersell his importance to a staff. In particular, he is an exceptional pitch framer. By Baseball Info Solutions’ Strike Zone Runs Saved metric, Martin has saved his pitchers 48 runs with his framing since 2010, which is the second highest total in baseball over the period, trailing only Jonathan Lucroy (85).
To replace Martin, the Pirates have a pair of former Yankees backstops in Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. Stewart has a well-earned reputation as a defensive specialist and has the excellent caught stealing rates and pitch framing numbers to prove it—his 34 Strike Zone Runs Saved since 2010 is seventh most and set a pace that would nearly reach Lucroy with equal innings. Cervelli does not have the arm that Martin or Stewart do, but his framing numbers (10 Strike Zone Runs Saved in just 1,531.1 innings since 2010) project him to join their elite company in that respect. And Cervelli has the on-base skills (.348 career OBP) to make an impact offensively, as well, if he can stay on the field.
All told, the Pirates were as kind to the fantasy owners of their pitchers as they could be given the loss of Martin. Do not expect a tangible impact on Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, or Vance Worley, and expect A.J. Burnett to bounce back to nearer his 2012-2013 Pirates numbers (3.41 ERA) rather than his 2014 Phillies numbers (4.59 ERA)—Carlos Ruiz has -22 Strike Zone Runs Saved since 2010.
Burnett’s other major problem in 2014 was a hernia that bothered him all season and that he had surgically repaired as soon as the season ended. Steamer is not too kind to a 38-year-old pitcher who allowed 4.0 walks per nine last season—it projects him to finish with a 4.06 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and a declining 7.7 strikeouts per nine—but I think a rebound is likely. Beyond the framing bump, Burnett leaves the worst defensive team in the NL (-33 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014) for the fourth best (44 DRS). In particular, their exceptional defensive infield should assist Burnett if he can rediscover the 56+ percent groundball rate that he carried with the club back in 2012 and 2013. I think Burnett is an excellent sleeper in NL-only formats. He could slip out of the top 100 overall starters in drafts, and I expect a return of a top-75 starter.
The real fantasy interest is at the top of the Pirates’ rotation, where Gerrit Cole finally showed the elite strikeout rate his stuff demands and Francisco Liriano continued to strike out more than a batter per inning but fell prey to his ever-present control problems. After modest strikeout rates between 6.0 and 8.0 batters per nine in both Triple-A and the majors in 2013, Cole punched out exactly 138 batters in his 138 innings pitched last season. Cole missed time with shoulder fatigue, but with that behind him, he enters 2015 on the precipice of the top 20 of starters. His youth, stuff, and exceptional command (career 2.4 walks per nine) provide him with a very high floor even if his strikeout rates decline slightly from his 2014 breakout.
With Liriano’s 4.5 walks per nine allowed in 2014, it’s now difficult to look as his 3.5 walks per nine from 2013 as anything other than an anomaly—he walked 5.0 batters per nine in both 2012 and 2011. Still, Liriano managed to keep his ERA at a respectable 3.38, and his strikeout rate of 9.7 per nine had him in the top 12 of starters with at least 160 innings pitched for the second consecutive season. The Ks alone put Liriano in the top 50 among starters, but there is major downside risk for both ERA and especially WHIP. Meanwhile, his value proposition is not too different from Burnett’s but is twice the price.
Among the backend starters of Locke and Worley, Worley is more interesting. While Locke has suffered from similar command issues to Liriano—he walked 4.5 batters per nine in 2013—he does not share the strikeout potential. Worley likely doesn’t either. He struck out just 6.4 batters per nine in his 2014 comeback season and has not topped 8.0 batters per nine since 2011. However, Worley seems to have reinvented himself as a fastball-heavy (90 percent of his pitches were either two-seam or four-seam fastballs last season) strike-thrower, a recipe Bartolo Colon has used to great success each of the last three seasons with his own sub-90s fastball. That may not be enough to make Worley useful in typical formats, but in a league like Ottoneu where outs are king, he could be a $1 gem.
On the outside looking in, Charlie Morton is working his way back from hip surgery and could be ready for Opening Day. Morton has been a decent backend starter for the Pirates the last two seasons (2.6 combined WAR) but has little to offer fantasy owners except in deep formats.
More exciting are the trio of pitching prospects Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham. This time last year, Taillon was considered one of the best prospects in the minors and was on the doorstep of the majors. Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery delayed that debut and makes anything sooner than a September call-up this season a long shot.
In the time since Taillon’s injury, Glasnow has emerged as the elite arm in the system and perhaps all of baseball. In 2014, Glasnow was practically unhittable. He struck out 11.4 batters per nine and allowed just 74 hits in 124.1 innings at High-A. If he can get cut down his walk rate from the 4.1 batters per nine he allowed in 2014 to even the mid-3s in the majors, he could become one of the best starters in baseball. In dynasty formats, Glasnow is the arm to own in the team’s system, but it’s likely he is another full year away from reaching the majors, even if his command improves substantially in 2015.
Nick Kingham has not received the press that Taillon did or Glasnow does now, but with 144.1 solid innings at Double-A and 88.0 in Triple-A, he is the prospect arm most likely to make an impact for the major league team in 2015. Kingham profiles as more of a mid-rotation starter. At his two stops in 2014, Kingham failed to strike out even 7.0 batters per nine. It’s hard to see him having a real fantasy impact with a midseason call-up the way Cole did in 2013, but he should at least earn a chance at some point this year, which makes him relevant in deeper formats.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt