This week is the entire Pirates’ season in a microcosm: on Tuesday night, Jameson Taillon spun a gem against the Mets, shutting them out for eight innings and giving their offense plenty of time to wear Jacob deGrom out to build a lead. It was a great win and it was great because it was one of the reminders of what the Pirates are supposed to look like, which is something that’s easy to lose sight of in this on-going annoyance of a baseball season. And then on Wednesday and Thursday, Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio got bombed, the Pirates had no chance to win either game, and now they’re 33-33 and sending the shambling corpse of Francisco Liriano out to face Jake Arrieta this afternoon, then sending the unreliable-and-kind-of-bad-but-still-their-second-best-and-second-most-reliable-starter Jon Niese out to face Jon Lester on Saturday. There is a non-zero chance the Pirates end this weekend behind the 31-36 Brewers in the standings.
We could rehash the pre-season pitching plan from the start again, or we could just say that it’s failed. Juan Nicasio is not a starting pitcher. Jon Niese is not an acceptable AJ Burnett or JA Happ replacement. Francisco Liriano is looking increasingly less effective with every start. The plan was to use some good starts from Locke and a trial run from Nicasio to buy time for the young pitchers to both get ready and get cheaper, but with the struggles of Niese and Liriano and Cole’s injury, that plan has crumbled into dust.
The easy answer to this question is that the Pirates cannot keep putting Locke and Nicasio on the mound in the first inning, and they need to put either Tyler Glasnow or Stephen Brault or Chad Kuhl or Wilfredo Boscan in their places. They get a freebie in one of those spots when Gerrit Cole comes back (if he comes back on the schedule they’ve laid out for him, which I will be skeptical of until the moment he blows a 96 mph fastball past someone), but we’re hitting a point in the season where even one more start by Locke and Nicasio is too many.
The Pirates are cautious with their young pitchers, and I understand that. I don’t mind their mid-season promotion schedule around the super two date nearly as much as most, because I think that it makes a lot of sense to promote guys the way they promote them and because most guys that they call up seem to be just barely ready or not quite ready, despite all of the howling from us impatient fans (and I include myself in this group, because I am about to howl) to hurry things along. I always like to remind people that I’m not a scout, but I’ve lived in a Triple-A town for almost nine years now and I’ve watched enough Triple-A baseball to understand that guys that seem ready in Triple-A aren’t always actually ready for the big leagues.
Sometimes, though, you hit an inflection point in the season where it doesn’t matter if the minor leaguers are ready, because the big leaguers are so bad that something has to be done. The Pirates have hit that point in the last three weeks. The rotation is untenably bad and it’s dragging an uneven bullpen down along with it.
Since the Pirates’ return to relevance in 2013, I’ve had the same internal debate that I’ve played out on this blog at every trade deadline and winter meetings. Is it better to try and make the playoffs every year and hope that things break your way every once in a while, or is it better to sell out for a one or two year window? The answer is obvious in some sports (take, for example, hockey: sometimes a team that looks like the worst Penguin team you’ve seen in a decade clicks and wins the Stanley Cup, because in hockey if you make the tournament and save your best hockey for the spring you’ve got a hell of a chance to do something special) but in baseball it’s complicated by awfulness of the Wild Card. Still, the Pirates’ plan is pretty obviously to be steady, to promote from within rather than trade those assets, and to put a contender on the field every year and it’s hard to argue with this plan thanks to both the ridiculously competitive NL Central and the Mediocre Giant Dynasty.
There is one quibble with it, though; if your plan is to make the playoffs every year and hope that everything eventually breaks in your direction in the fall, then it only works if you keep making the playoffs. This is a good Pirate team; their offense is phenomenal, and the top of their rotation and the back of their bullpen has a lot of talent. It would be an absolute shame to rob them of even another traveshmockery of a Wild Card Game because they stood pat with Niese, Liriano, Locke, and Nicasio as a 2-5 in their rotation for too long.
The clock is ticking. The Pirates don’t want to rush their young pitchers, and I understand that. Their only other choice, though, is to watch a promising season burn.
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