Yesterday was position players, today it’s pitchers. Starters (and potential starters) first, then relievers.
Francisco Liriano — I am, in general, pretty serene about Liriano this spring. For most of last year he looked so effortlessly dominant and in command of his pitches, that I’ve got to think that the strides that he made with Ray Searage in 2013 are going to stick in 2014. My biggest worry about him is that his endurance, in a couple of ways. The 161 innings that he pitched for the Pirates last year was the second most he’d ever thrown in his career, and even that seemed to wear him down over the course of the season. In his last ten starts, he had an ERA of 4.78 (though 17 of the 31 runs he allowed were concentrated in two really bad starts), and his control issues flared up more in August and September than in any other month. He smoothed things out to make two really excellent playoff starts for the Pirates, but the Pirates could really use 200 innings from Liriano this year and that seems like a lot to ask from him. In fact, I’m a little worried that the 161 innings from last year will carry over into this year. Since 2009 (his first full year back from Tommy John surgery), Liriano hasn’t increased his inning count in consecutive years at any point.
Gerrit Cole – Gerrit Cole is the sort of talent that makes everyone think they can be a scout. Even watching him struggle to miss bats on low resolution minor league broadcasts last spring, his size and velocity made it clear that he had the ability to be a real top-of-the-rotation horse in Pittsburgh. His early-summer starts with the Pirates were tantalizing, and his breakout September was something to behold. His velocity, the sink on his two-seamer, his control, and his quickly developing changeup and evolving breaking ball makes it damn near impossible for me to talk about him without being effusive. I have some generic young pitcher health concerns (it’d be stupid not to), but I’m honestly not sure I’m more excited about anything in 2014 than watching Cole develop as a pitcher.
Charlie Morton – In a 2013 season full of pleasant surprises, I think Charlie Morton was maybe the most surprising. When he morphed into Roy Halladay-lite in 2011, he lost a bunch of velocity. I thought at first that it was due to his shift to a sinker from a straight fastball, but last year made it clear that the condition of his elbow probably contributed to that. His average fastball last year was 93.4 mph, way up from 90.8 in 2011 and 88.5 in 2012. His sinker was harder, too, and that made his fastball/sinker combo something that was really, really hard to right-handed hitters last year. The final piece to the puzzle has been a pitch to use against lefties; there was some talk about a split-change earlier this spring and Morton has more or less disappeared from spring games since then. I can’t help but wonder if the Pirates aren’t trying to keep it under wraps so that it can be a surprise to hitters when Morton makes his season debut. If he does add an effective split-change to lefties, I think there’s a decent chance Morton will surprise all of us again this year.
Wandy Rodriguez – It’s awfully hard to get a read on Wandy this spring; his strikeouts and velocity had been on the decline for a couple of years before his elbow problems last year, but he was starting to morph into a ground ball pitcher and was still quite effective. If he comes back this spring as the exact same pitcher he was before his injury, that’ll be good news for the Pirates even though that pitcher isn’t quite as good as the Wandy Rodriguez of 2008-2011. That being said, knowing that his problem last year was arthritis is pretty unsettling in that it’s hard not to wonder if it’s going to flare up again during the season and there’s simply no way to know if it will until he starts pitching. So how many innings can the Pirates count on Wandy for? Honestly, I don’t have an answer.
Edinson Volquez – Volquez has been a tricky subject to tackle all spring. One the one hand, I don’t put much stock into awful spring training results of any sort; if the Pirates have Volquez working on mechanics it’s possible that he could struggle until things suddenly click into place. On the other hand, I didn’t have very high expectations for Volquez coming into camp, and obviously his struggles in the Grapefruit League have done nothing to dispel those low expectations. I think that a lot of Pirate fans are expecting Volquez to be similar to Jonathan Sanchez; it was apparent right from the start that Sanchez had zero stuff last year, he got bombed from all sides in his four starts, and he was quickly gone. Volquez will not be that bad. His stuff is still mostly intact; even if he struggles, he’s going to sprinkle some tantalizing outings in with all of the frustrating ones, and he’s going to be around for a while. I think the frustrating-to-tantalizing ratio is going to be skewed in the wrong direction, but hopefully I’m wrong.
Jeff Locke – I have, on at least three separate occasions, written intros to posts about Jeff Locke and the concept of regression. The main idea in each of them is that it’s only fair to say that Locke’s second half was a regression to the mean if you accept the idea that literally everything else was the same about him from the first half to the second half. Now, that may be true, but I’m skeptical. That being said, I’ve done cursory looks for typical pointers that something was off (velocity, control, etc.), and didn’t come up with much. As it stands right now, I think Locke can be a perfectly acceptable back-of-the-rotation Paul Maholm type guy once he gets healthy. Given Volquez’s struggles, Jameson Taillon’s health issues, and the general durability questions around much of the rest of the rotation, the talk about trading him right now makes me kind of nervous, even though a return to form isn’t necessarily a slam dunk.
Stolmy Pimentel – Because Pimentel throws pretty hard and because he had a reputation for a good changeup before his struggles in the Red Sox system in addition to his fastball and breaking ball, I think he’s a candidate to make some starts this year, should the pitching depth break down any further. That being said, I think his mid-90s fastball/slider combo can also play really nicely out of the bullpen, and if he stays in the pen all year I wouldn’t be surprised to find him in some late-inning situations as the season goes on.
Brandon Cumpton – He’s nice depth to have; he doesn’t throw terribly hard or have great secondary stuff, but he gets groundballs and mostly kept hitters off balance in his handful of big league starts last year. I don’t know that I’d want him as any more than a depth starter (or maybe as a reliever, since he could probably find some velocity in shorter stints), but he’s definitely a nice guy to have around.
Phil Irwin – Given everything that happened in 2013, it’s easy to forget that when the season started, Phil Irwin was the first guy the Pirates called on from Indianapolis to make a start in a pinch. Irwin had some great numbers in Altoona and Indy in 2012 and his nasty curveball garnered him some internet gif fame, but he had almost no control in his one start with the Pirates last year. He pitched very little after that start, going on the disabled list and eventually having elbow surgery (a nerve transposition, not Tommy John). He was pitching again by the fall, though, and so he’ll likely be on the Pirates’ radar to make some starts depending on how the question marks ahead of him on this list pan out.
Jameson Taillon – At this point I think we should just be holding our collective breath until we know more about his elbow discomfort. Even if it’s a relatively routine spring training problem, I’m sure the Pirates will keep him out of action for a while and he may not be ready to provide the Pirates with any help until later in the summer than anyone originally expected. When he is healthy, scouts tend to rave about him (it’s certainly not a consensus opinion, but there are a few guys out there that think more highly of him than they do of Cole) because of his fastball/curveball combo and the nice progress he’s made on his changeup to this point. Obviously the Pirates could find a place for a pitcher like him in 2014, assuming that this elbow problem doesn’t set his development back too far.
Jason Grilli – It’s incrediby hard not to love Jason Grilli as a fan; he came to Pittsburgh as a down-on-his-luck reliever that seemed to be near the end of his career in 2011, he made some good appearances, he wore his heart on his sleeve, Pittsburgh embraced him, and he reveled in it. He became a strikeout machine in 2012 and for a large chunk of 2013 he was an unhittable monster at the back end of the bullpen. When he tweaked his elbow right as the pennant race was heating up in late July, he didn’t hang his head; he worked hard to get back in time for the end of the season and the playoffs. That flexor tendon problem worries me, though. His velocity took a real dip when he came back, and he wasn’t quite as effective as he was pre-injury in terms of swings-and-misses. He seemed to be getting back into the swing of things when the playoffs came around, though, so maybe I’m worried about nothing.
Mark Melancon — One of the most awe-inspiring things to watch on the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates was Mark Melancon operating at top capacity. His cutter/fastball/curveball combo had hitters beating balls into the ground or missing them entirely, and on most nights Melancon wouldn’t need more than 14 or 15 pitches to get his one inning of work done. He faltered a bit at the end of the season, though his stuff seemed to look fine and a bit of it was due to bad luck (that one weird game against the Reds in particular). Honestly, given the previously stated concerns about Jason Grilli, I’d say Melancon’s even money to end 2014 as the Pirates’ closer.
Tony Watson – Very quietly, Tony Watson turned into a formidable reliever last year. After giving up two runs to the Rockies on August 3rd, Watson wasn’t scored on again until the Wild Card Game against the Reds. He made 21 appearances in that span and threw 20 1/3 innings. He gave up 12 hits, walked no one, and struck out 13. He held hitters to a .361 OPS against. It’s worth noting that whie people tend to think of him as a LOOGY, he held righties to a sub-.600 OPS last year and may eventually find his way into a more solid set-up role.
Justin Wilson – Wilson spent most of his minor league career working as a starter, but his velocity jumped up when he moved to the bullpen and his control issues became less of a concern. I thought he was really great as the lights-out, multiple-inning swing guy in the early part of the season last year. That’s a role the Pirates need, since so many of their pitchers are on relatively strict pitch counts due to youth and/or health concerns. He was fine in the one-inning role he was used in in the second half, too (I suspect that he may have been switched to that role to preserve his arm since he hadn’t worked as a reliever before).
Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro – This is the 2013 Pirates in a nutshell: Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro combined to throw 154 1/3 innings, mostly in long relief, and they had a combined 3.09 ERA. Both of them had strikeout rates below 6.0 K/9, but they both kept the ball over the plate, on the ground, and in the park, and as a result they connected a lot of bridges from the starters to the relief aces. I have no idea if either of their performances are repeatable in 2014, to be honest, though Gomez’s groundball rate was similar to Charlie Morton’s, and that will certainly help.
Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes – Two pretty frustrating members of the bullpen, in that their stuff is good but the results have been awfully inconsistent to date. Morris in particular seemed to fill the role of “guy that ends up on the mound in a tie game when Jason Grilli is waiting in the bullpen for a save situation,” which was often maddening. Both will get their chances in 2014, but I’m guessing that some of their innings will be eaten up by Duke Welker and Stolmy Pimentel.
Duke Welker — Over the course of six weeks, Welker went to the Twins to complete the Justin Morneau trade, then the Pirates re-acquired him by sending Kris Johnson to Minneapolis. Welker has always had some control issues, but his fastball/slider combo earned him some comparisons to Joel Hanrahan back when Hanrahan was the Pirates’ closer. The team obviously liked him enough to trade for him six weeks after trading him away.
Zach Thornton – Sort of came out of nowhere (when camp broke in 2013 he was a 25-year old assigned to Advanced-A in Bradenton) to dominate across three levels as a reliever last year. There was some thought that he’d be a Rule 5 target this winter, though he went unselected. He will presumably start the year out with Indianapolis, but if he keeps along the crazy 31:4 K:BB pace he set there in the later part of last season, he may be one of the first names called up (even ahead of more familiar names like Hughes and Morris) once the reliever carousel starts turning.