Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Pitching Preview...Batman & Robin Reunited, Liriano Returns

Hey gang!

After a quick look at the outfield last time, I decided to break up the pitching into starters and relievers because this article would be extra long if I put both together. Thanks for those of you that voted on my survey as to who we'll cover after the Pirates. By a slim margin, the Cardinals won out over the Cubs, so those will be next as we'll stay in the NL Central. But first things first...

We talked about Russell Martin leaving and how that may or may not affect the Pirates' pitching in 2015, but one thing remains, pitching coach Ray Searage. The man that has become almost magical with arms is back. I saw a beautiful picture of him on Jameson Taillon's twitter feed a week ago working with the youngster and the hopes to get Taillon back on track in 2015. As we go through a few of these starters and potential starters, I'll talk briefly on a few I think Searage might be most helpful to in 2015.

However, a man he will get to work with again is A J Burnett. Burnett returns to the Steel City for less money and one last run for a World Series. I always thought Burnett leaving was a bad decision, for him and for the Pirates. In Philadelphia, the Phillies used him to his maximum, but without the backing in the field, he was hung with a National League worst 18 losses. He won eight games in those 34 starts over 213 2/3 innings. While he was out on the hill, he also walked a league leading 96 batters, or four batters every nine innings. He did continue to strike guys out at an eight per game rate with 190 for the season. That was down from his 9.8 K/9 IP average and 209 strikeouts in Pittsburgh in 2013. He won't lose 18 again.

Francisco Liriano liked Pittsburgh so much, he re-signed with the Buccos for three years in the offseason. While his win-loss total fell, it was not representative of his brilliant second half. Liriano ended up 7-10, while striking out 175 in 162 1/3 innings. his highest strikeout total since 2010 in Minnesota. He went 6-3 in 14 starts after the All Star Break, including going 4-0 in September as he was finally healthy. The Pirates are looking for more of September in 2015.

Gerrit Cole continued to live up to the number one pick from 2011 as he went 11-5 in 22 starts. He walked only 40 batters while striking out 138 batters for the Pirates in 2014. He was out with injuries twice (in May and August), but also won four in a row in September as he returned strong. He struck out a season-high 12 batters on the season's final day in a 4-1 loss to Cincinnati.

Spots four and five in the rotation will be up for grabs. I'll start with the most likely to get the two spots, then talk about other guys who could get the shot or a chance later in the season to join the rotation.

We'll start with Uncle Charlie, Charlie Morton. Morton returns after missing the last two months with recurring hip problems. His 2014 wasn't going well after getting that four-year deal before the season. He was only 6-12 in 157 1/3 innings while leading the league for the second consecutive year in hit batsmen (19 in 2014, 16 in 2013). Seeing that, control is still an issue with Morton. He struck out 126 and walked 57. That hip problem could loom large and might even place him in the pen before all is said and done, just as the Pirates kept him in late September. Morton will probably start the season as the Pirates' #4.

The "Vanimal" Vance Worley, came back from the dead in 2014. After a great rookie campaign in Philadelphia that ended with him finishing third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting at 11-3 in 131 2/3 innings, he struggled mightily in 2012 and was traded to Minnesota in 2013 to another tough campaign. However, Searage helped him regain his confidence and form while going 8-4 in 17 starts after making it to Pittsburgh on June 15, including a complete game shutout on July 28 against the Giants and eight innings of another shutout, a 1-0 variety against the Milwaukee Brewers on September 21. Worley, in my mind, should be the #4 starter, but probably will be #5.

That leaves Batman's (AJ) Robin, Jeff Locke, out in the cold temporarily. Locke rebounded from losing all confidence after the All Star Game in 2013 to mount a good comeback in 2014, going 7-6 in 21 starts. His strikeout rate was down slightly (from 6.8/9 to 6.1/9), but cut his walk ratio to almost half (from 4.5/9 to 2.7/9) after leading the National League in free passes in 2013 with 84. While he might make the squad out of camp, it might not be surprising to see him make a few starts at Indianapolis to keep his arm strength up until he is needed in the 'Burgh.

It also leaves newly married Brandon Cumpton awaiting another call-up as well. He went 3-4 in 10 starts in Pittsburgh with a 4.89 ERA in 70 innings. He was better in Indianapolis, going 5-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 71 innings, but only struck out 37, while walking 20 batters. Cumpton will need to work on control and lower the walk ratio with Searage to get another extended look in 2015.

Another intriguing arm that should get a look is Casey Sadler. Sadler won 11 games in each of 2013 (at AA Altoona) and 2014 (at AAA Indianapolis) as a starter. The Pirates gave him a look in the bullpen in September in six appearances, but his numbers as a starter make him a possibility at some point in 2015.

We talked about the potential signing of Jung-ho Kang from the Korean Baseball Organization during the infield preview and that deal was finalized last week. The Pirates took a flier on another KBO pitcher in Radhames Liz. Last year, Liz spent time in AA and AAA of Toronto's organization going 3-2 in 12 starts with a 2.95 ERA. Before that, Liz spent three seasons with the LG Twins of the KBO going 26-38 with a 3.58 ERA. In his limited numbers with the Jays, he struck out 44 and walked 24, so working on his control is something that will continue in Indy, most likely.

I talked earlier about the picture of Jameson Taillon and he heads a class of draftees over the past five years that might finally show Neal Huntington's talent evaluation to be spot on. Taillon spent last season recovering from Tommy John surgery and the effects were showing in the middle of 2013 as he 5-10 across Altoona and Indianapolis. However, hopes are high for Taillon that he will make a full recovery in 2015 and prove that second overall pick in 2010 was a wise one.

I am starting to believe that Altoona is a great stop for our pitchers to learn and get better. Proof is Adrian Sampson, who had struggled through 2013 in A ball, but pitched brilliant at Altoona in 2014. Sampson went 10-5 and came within an out of a no-hitter during the season. In 24 starts over 148 innings, he walked only 30, while striking out 99. His 2.55 ERA is just another highlight from the Pirates' 5th round pick in 2012.

Nick Kingham got the ball rolling in Altoona as well in 2014, but the fruit began showing as he hit AAA. At Indianapolis, he followed up a struggling 1-7 at Altoona, going 5-4 in 14 starts (88 IP), with a 3.58 ERA, striking out 65 and walking only 27. He may start at Indy for the first half, but may see Pittsburgh by season's end.

Finally, the horizon is still bright for 2011 fifth round pick Tyler Glasnow. At A Bradenton last season, Glasnow went 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA in 124 innings (23 starts), striking out 157 batters while walking only 57. Granted, his walk total still needs work and his strikeout rate of 11.4 K/9 will drop as he advances through the ranks, but he may get a September call-up just to see what he has.

I want to end my look at potential starters with a guy a lot of people may not have noticed the Pirates pick up in this offseason. Former Padre Clayton Richard won 14 games for the Friars in 2010 and 2012. He had arm problems and had surgery in 2013. He was a late season sign for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014. He had a few starts at AA Mobile, but got a September call to AAA Reno. He made one start and in it, he took home the win pitching 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs and 11 hits, a quality start. This may be Searage's project for 2015. Yes, while he gave up a lot of homers in 2012 in San Diego, the Padres put him out there for over 200 innings twice in his time there (201.2 in 2010 and 218.2 in 2012). He could become an innings eater and a pitcher that can keep the Pirates in the game. He's my pick to surprise in 2015.

There you have it, the starter preview. In our final edition for the Pirates, we'll look at the bullpen next time.

Thanks for reading,

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