Full Rotation: The St. Louis Cardinals and starters in the NL-Central
By Larry Levin
The St. Louis Cardinals always seem to have the Pittsburgh Pirates nipping at their heels; will 2018 be the same?
Anticipated Starters: Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams.
In the Wings: Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow
The Pirates, who due to financial constraints always seem to be teetering on the edge of a stay-in/rebuild dilemma, have an average rotation with some upside promise to go with their stable of position studs. But that could change in a hurry.
The most pressing question here is the future of Cole. For the last several weeks news has been rife with speculation about the team dealing him, with the Yankees as the most likely successful suitor. It’s not clear if the Pirates will achieve Clint Frazier-like prospect acquisition in this one, or even Gleyber Torres, so the transaction remains up in the air.
Losing Cole without an immediate replacement could spell serious trouble for the Pirates. While last year was his worst statistically, he’s still only 27 with a huge career ahead of him.
Some of Cole’s numbers are enigmatic. He’s never had a babip below .300, which means either that he’s not benefited from luck or there’s something about his stuff that doesn’t add up to weak contact. But the exit velocities aren’t that bad when he keeps the ball away from the middle below the belt.
The rest of the group is, shall we say, okay. Kuhl was a nice mid-rotation development, and he could improve if he can get the walks down — there were 72 of them, and that doesn’t work when you’re giving up a hit an inning. Nova does not really pencil beyond a Number Four.
But the real questions are about Taillon and Williams. The former was a number two overall pick in the 2010 draft out of high school (the well-known Woodlands HS outside Houston) and the weight of the world fell on his shoulders. A fine, fine 2016 debut led to a more pedestrian 2017, as he had the double dissatisfaction of too many hits and too many walks. But the potential is clearly there.
Williams is going to have to rely on his control, not overpowering stuff. And he did, mostly all the way through the minors. Then he discovered MLB reality, where mistakes are punished at a much more frequent rate. Still, thrust into the starting role, the Arizona State product showed he belongs there; it’s just that his upside probably doesn’t resemble that of the more talented Taillon.
One of the big questions for fans in Steel City is: who the heck is Tyler Glasnow? The 6’8” giant has simply demolished the minor leagues, with about 350 hits and almost 800 strikeouts in about 600 innings, totalling a 2.02 ERA.
Then he came to the majors and well, that plate was very difficult to find. Still, he’s only 24, and we’ve seen what power pitchers can evolve into — or not. The upside is prodigious, but the downside is, well, Glasnow’s 2017.
Like Glasnow, Brault may be slotted for the bullpen rather than AAA, as Neil Huntington and others have suggested. With Felipe Rivero slated as the obvious closer, and no room at the inn for starters based on the top five above, Brault could bring his fastball-heavy arsenal to the middle innings.
Because the Pirate starters and young and inexperienced, and most haven’t shown better than middle- or lower-rotation results, we have to give the starting five a C+ at this point. The plus is for the potential of growth. And with modest, but again, potentially developing depth to back them up, we’ll provide the same C+ grade to those in the wings.
If Cole leaves, however, and there’s no quality free agent signing, then the Pirates will have to win a lot of games with a lot of runs to succeed.