Let’s be blunt: with Francisco Liriano looking like he’s headed to the disabled list with an oblique injury, the Pirates have a huge problem with their pitching staff. If Liriano is out for any amount of time (and this tweet from Travis Sawchik/David Manel indicates that he very well may be), the Pirates’ season is essentially at a crossroads right now.
If we assume that Liriano goes on the disabled list, the Pirates will have at least one turn in which their rotation looks something like this:
- Charlie Morton
- Edinson Volquez
- Jeff Locke
- Brandon Cumpton
- Vance Worley/Casey Sadler/Jeanmar Gomez
That’s horrifying. That’s Charlie Morton, a reclamation project, and a Triple-A rotation full of replacement players. Gerrit Cole’s return from his shoulder fatigue would obviously mitigate it some, but if we’re being perfectly honest here, I’m pretty skeptical that Cole’s injury is going to be a 15-days-and-back kind of thing. It’s good news that MRIs don’t show any structural damage and it’s good news he’s still throwing from flat ground, but that quote from Cole about having never experienced anything like this before gives me the howling fantods.
Let’s be cautious without being paranoid about Cole (since that seems like the route the team will take, as well) and say that he’s out until July 1st, instead of his first eligible return date of June 19th. And let’s be somewhat optimistic about Liriano and say that he’ll be out until just after the All-Star break. That’s 2-3 more missed starts for Cole and about six missed starts for Liriano. The Pirates are 7 1/2 games out of first place and four back of the wild card. Try and imagine a scenario in which those numbers don’t change while Sadler/Gomez/Worley get three starts, Cumpton gets six more, and Charlie Morton is the Pirates’ best starter over the next five weeks.
The Pirates’ front office started punting on the question of whether the Pirates were 2014 contenders back in November, and they’ve kept on punting ever since. They have to make a decision now, and it boils down to this: trade for a starter, or give up on the season. This comes with an interesting tag, though: the Pirates absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about-it have to acquire a starter at some point between now and Opening Day 2015 (Liriano and Volquez are free agents and it’s hard to imagine the Bucs wanting either one back, or Volquez wanting to come back at a reasonable price in the event that he pitches well enough to warrant a return invitation), whether it’s through a trade or a free agency (so … it’ll be through a trade).
Honestly, if you consider that the Pirates already need at least one starter for 2015, that makes a trade in the near future somewhat more likely; the situation the Pirates are in right now doesn’t really lend itself to acquiring rental players, but picking someone up that can maybe help for 2014 and will still be on the staff in 2015 even if things don’t work out this year makes some sense. I starting ruminating about this on Twitter last week, and Ryan Sendek came up with a good list of pitchers that might be on the trade market that are still under contract for next year. None of those pitchers will come cheaply, but the Pirates are one of the few teams that have a farm system that could support a deal for most of those pitchers.
Of course, Jeff Locke’s last start looked really solid and Vance Worley’s AAA peripherals have been fantastic, so it’s probably much more likely that the Pirates will hope for some miraculous wave of improbable pitching to ride this out, then take action afterwards if they’re somehow still in contention at the All-Star break. This would be the more cautious, reserved approach since it would leave plenty of flexibility for 2015, but I suspect that it’d be more or less akin to giving up on 2014.
On most seasons, I’d say that June 11th is too early to start talking about deciding between buying and selling, but not for the Pirates this year. Liriano’s injury has forced their hand, and the Pirates are going to set the course for the rest of 2014 with how they respond to this injury.