How effective will the Pirates rotation be without Gerrit Cole?

Gerrit Cole has seen his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates come to an end. How will the club’s rotation fare without him for the first time since early 2013?

Friday, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Gerrit Cole agreed to a one-year, $6.75 million deal to avoid arbitration in 2018. This guarantees his contract for the upcoming season, but not necessarily where he will be playing.

That came tonight, when the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates consummated a trade for Cole’s services.

How will the Pirates’ starting rotation look without a him?

2018 Rotation

With Cole no longer with the Pittsburgh Pirates, one would figure that Jameson Taillon would move up to be the Opening Day starter. Ivan Nova was a sure pick for the rotation, despite a poor second half, even before Cole trade rumors emerged. Conversely, Chad Kuhl‘s strong second half likely keeps him in the rotation as well. Trevor Williams‘ solid pitching once joining the rotation in June likely gives him the No. 4 spot.

After that, the fifth spot is likely incoming starter Joe Musgrove‘s to lose, while Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault are the fringe candidates to fill the final spot as a starter should Musgrove falter. Sound familiar? They competed for it in March a year ago. As the late Yogi Berra would say, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

So, sans-Cole here’s the Pittsburgh Pirates 2018 starting pitchers

  1. Jameson Taillon
  2. Ivan Nova
  3. Chad Kuhl
  4. Trevor Williams
  5. Joe Musgrove

None of those pitchers finished with an ERA below 4.06, a WHIP below 1.305, or had more than 142 strikeouts.

Not bad, but not great.

The New ‘Ace’

The biggest question an outsider would ask of this staff without Cole is who the new ace would be. Like him or not, but Cole has been one of if not the best starter on the Pirates’ roster since his debut in 2013. As a result, his departure leaves a void.

In Cole’s wake, Taillon would become the de facto ace. Is he ready to be an ace?

After a strong rookie season (5-4, 104 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.115 WHIP, 7.4 SO9, 2.6 rWAR), Taillon took a step back in 2017 (8-7, 133.2 IP, 4.44 ERA, 1.481 WHIP, 8.4 SO9, 1.3 rWAR). Now, it is fair to potentially blame some of that regression on him missing a little over a month because of testicular cancer. Regardless, the numbers were not as strong as the rookie campaign for the most part.

Nonetheless, Taillon has been full of promise since being selected as a first-rounder in 2010. First round picks aren’t made on a middle of the rotation arm. The Pirates clearly envision Taillon as top-end talent in the rotation and he could get his best chance to prove himself in 2018 if Cole is traded.

To not only bounce back, but also to become ace-worthy, Taillon will need to be better with all four of his primary pitches.

The fastball dropoff is the most alarming, especially since Taillon went from averaging 94.9-miles per hour in 2016 to 95.8 in 2017, according to Pitch Info. He’ll have to work on improving it first before getting to the other pitches. Fortunately, Spring Training is a month long and Taillon will get opportunities to potentially focus on just one pitch per start in meaningless games.

Middle of the rotation

Outside of Taillon, there is plenty of uncertainty. There is no guarantee that Taillon will become an ace, but he seems the most likely to be the Pirates best pitcher in 2018.

Aside from Taillon, the Pirates remaining pitchers have big questions surrounding them. For Nova, the biggest question for him in 2018 is if he can limit baserunners as successfully as he did in 2016 once he joined the Pirates and as he did in the first three months of 2017. From Aug. 2016 through June 2017, Nova posted a WHIP below 1.4 in all five months. His ERA went above 3.50 just once in that span and walked a combined 16 batters over 172.2 innings.

The script flipped in the last three months of 2017. Nova walked 23 batters in 79 innings pitched and had a 5.58 ERA. As the Pirates No. 2 starter once Cole is gone, Nova has to be much better than how he ended 2017.

As for the rest, the theme of young arms with potential continues. As bad as Nova was in the second half, Kuhl was even worse in the first half. His 5.58 ERA in 15 starts spanning 69.1 innings raised serious questions as to why he was on the major-league roster. Give him credit though, as he posted a 3.38 ERA in his final 16 starts over 88 innings, largely thanks to a slider that Pitch Info ranked as 10.8 runs above average. Kuhl needs another pitch to be as effective for him to put together a complete season.

Williams began the season as a reliever, but struggled there (5.40 ERA in six appearances). After the Dodgers shelled him in his first start of the season, Williams posted a 3.65 ERA in his final 24 starts and pitched at least five innings 20 times. Williams fastball (12.3 runs above average) and sinker (11.0) were stellar last year and his consistency was a bright spot as the season quickly crumbled apart.

Final Spot

Brault will probably get the edge over Glasnow this year as the fifth starter because Glasnow was given every opportunity to succeed in 2017, yet still failed. He made the Opening Day roster and lasted until mid-June despite walking at least two batters in all but two of his 12 starts and never pitching seven innings.

Glasnow returned in September, yet remarkably looked even worse in three starts, allowing a combined eight runs on six hits and 15(!) walks in 7.2 innings. His inability to stop walking batters will keep him in Triple-A to start the season.

Despite not getting called up until late July and not making a start until September, Brault pitched well in his brief time in the rotation. It was only four starts, but Brault only allowed nine runs, struck out 13 batters and walked eight in 18 innings. In three of those starts, he pitched at least five innings after only doing so three times in seven starts in 2016.

A big reason that Brault didn’t get as many starts was because of the Glasnow experiment. It failed and unless Brault falters, the fifth spot is his for 2018.

Potential

The biggest thing that these starters can do to be helpful is to eat innings. Too often, many of them faltered in the fifth and taxed the bullpen. That can’t happen again in 2018 for them if they have playoff inspirations even without Gerrit Cole.

This group has potential, but what is their ceiling? Kuhl turned a corner late last season, Nova doesn’t walk many batters and Williams pitches well enough to give the Pirates a chance to win as long as they can score at least four runs. Glasnow and Brault are wild cards and seemingly not long-term solutions.

If this group struggles, there are options in the minors that aren’t far away. Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes (No. 10 and 18, respectively, on MLB.com’s Pirates top prospect list), will start the season in Triple-A Indianapolis. No. 2 prospect Mitch Keller will start a level down in Double-A Altoona, but could find himself up in Pittsburgh late in the summer depending on his performance and the team’s need for another starter.

Overall, the Pittsburgh Pirates will take an obvious hit with the loss of Gerrit Cole. He wasn’t some stud ace last season, but his strikeouts (team-best 196) and ability to limit baserunners (starter-best 1.25 WHIP) will be missed. However, they can afford to withstand his loss by simply getting a little more out of their remaining pitchers.

 

 

 

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.