Let me preface this post by saying I’m not a big fan of preseason projections. While they can prove to be eerily accurate at times, they usually stay within the stat lines from the previous year, career averages and don’t see breakout seasons and late bloomers coming on. Case in point: A.J. Burnett was projected at a 3.91 ERA and 107 ERA+ last season and surprised everyone with a 3.19 ERA and 121 ERA+. With that said, they are fun to scan over and see a baseline for what you can expect from a player. Below are the ZIPS projections, which are computer-based projections of performance, for the Pirates starting rotation with my thoughts one each one.
Gerrit Cole: 3.08 ERA, 190 IP, 30 starts, 8.53 K/9, 2.18 BB/9, 4.3 WAR
Every stat line in Cole’s projection is down from his terrific 2015 season. And while we might see some regression this season from Cole, this projection isn’t a bad one at all. The K/9 and BB/9 are about the same, WAR is down a tick from 4.5 last season, but the ERA increases about a half run higher from his career-best 2.60 ERA last season. I’d like to see Cole eclipsed 200+ innings for the second consecutive year and if he beats this projection, that’s great news. Most would see this year as a down year since they’re expecting him to take another step forward, and he definitely could, but if he ends up with this stat line, the Pirates will be on their way.
Francisco Liriano: 3.19 ERA, 28 starts, 9.47 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, 3.2 WAR
After two straight seasons of a 3.38 ERA, Liriano’s projections for 2016 would give him a better year than last season, and that’s just what the Pirates need from him. ERA drops a tick, K/9 on par with his career average, slight increase in WAR to 3.2 from last year’s 2.7. I’d take that and after seeing him pitch to start spring training, I think he possibly could be even better. I’d like to see him get around 200 innings, but his career high has only ever been as high as 191.2 innings in what was a injury-riddled career up until arriving in Pittsburgh. Since arriving here three years ago, Liriano has thrown 161, 162 and 186.2 innings with a 118, 106 and 114 ERA+. I’ll take another healthy year from Frankie and an ERA in the low 3’s.
Jeff Locke: 4.15 ERA, 162 IP, 6.81 K/9, 3.37 BB/9, 1.4 WAR
In Locke’s first full season with the Bucs in 2013, the left-hander posted a 101 ERA+ and looked to be an up and coming pitcher. Since then he’s regressed the past two seasons with 3.91 ERA (92 ERA+) and 4.49 ERA (86 ERA+). It was a disappointing 2015 season that had the yinzers basically fed up with Locke. I think he proves the critics wrong this year and could be in line for a big rebound year. Locke has the talent as he showed in 2013 to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but has yet to put it all together. Diving deeper into his past two seasons, his peripherals are very similar—K/9 increased from 6.1 to 6.9, home runs per nine innings actually decreased slightly and his ground ball percentage was the same at 51%, but yet his ERA jumped up a half run. The cause of that was most likely luck, or lack thereof, as his BABIP increased more than 30 points. If Locke can get the same ground ball rate he’s accustomed to and keep his walks down, I think his BABIP returns to the norm and can easily outperform his 2016 projections and shock Pirates nation.
Jon Niese: 4.05 ERA, 157 IP, 5.99 K/9, 2.57 BB/9, 1.8 WAR
Niese comes over from the Mets in the Neil Walker deal and is slated to be a middle of the rotation guy. He’s become a model of consistency in his career. Since 2012, Niese has made 113 starts with a 3.65 ERA and a 99 ERA+. He mostly pitches to contact and gets a ton of ground balls, something the Pirates coveted when they acquired him this offseason. Niese had a 54% ground ball rate and that’s something Ray Searage and the Bucs will look to build on. Niese recorded a 2.0 WAR in three straight seasons until last year’s drop off when he was worth under one. The projections have him closer to a 2.0 WAR with an ERA around 4.00. The southpaw gave up a home run per nine innings last year, something that PNC Park expansive outfield should help. I believe Niese can do even better than this projection as we’ve seen pitchers come to the Pirates and produce better than their career numbers recently. See Liriano, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez and so on and so on.
Juan Nicasio: 3.98 ERA, 101 IP, 7.61 K/9, 3.63 BB/9, 0.7 WAR
Well you can throw the surprise factor out on this one. Juan Nicasio has made a name for himself this spring, as much as you can make a name from spring training outings. What has Nicasio done? Only toss 15 shutout innings with a silly 24 strikeouts. Yes, it’s spring training stats and that’s no guarantee on success on the season, but it’s hard for management to ignore this performance. Nicasio has a live arm and can be a bit wild, but he can rack up the strikeouts as he’s shown this spring. I think he’s played himself into a rotation spot at least to start the season and play it by ear to see what happens and who’s healthy and performing once Glasnow is ready. It’s easy to Nicasio beat those projection numbers after what he’s been doing, but I caution that spring training stats can be extremely misleading, but at this point with a 3.98 projected ERA, isn’t he a better option than Vogelsong?
Ryan Vogelsong: 4.57 ERA, 124 IP, 6.53 K/9, 3.34 BB/9, 0.7 WAR
I’m not up in arms like most fans on the Vogelsong signing. Vogelsong is a veteran that will be in his 12th season. You don’t stick around that long without knowing how to pitch. The man is 38 years old, this is about it for his career. All he is for this team is a number five starter that is the bridge to Glasnow. That’s it. I see him making about 8-10 starts for the Bucs before Glasnow gets the call in June. If he makes more, something went wrong with Glasnow’s progress at Indy or Vogelsong is surpassing expectations. Hell, the way Juan Nicasio is pitching, the Pirates could even still decide to start him and move Vogelsong to the pen. His projections here are about on par with what to expect for the time we will see him.
Tyler Glasnow: 3.72 ERA, 116 IP, 10.09 K/9, 4.97 BB/9, 1.2 WAR
The number seven prospect in all of baseball, Tyler Glasnow is the next big thing and should be arriving at PNC Park sometime in June. No one really knows what to expect of him once he gets the call, so let’s take a look at his minor league numbers. He’s made 80 starts over four seasons in the minors, posting a stingy 2.07 ERA with a ridiculous 11.8 K/9, but a 4.2 BB/9 as well. Glasnow is a presence on the mound at 6’8 and features a high-octane fastball that hits upper 90’s and mixes in an above average curveball as well as a changeup. Expect high strikeouts numbers, which is exactly what is projected but also expect a bit of wildness from the rookie. How good can this kid be once he gets to the show? Glasnow has a legitimate chance to be Gerrit Cole with more strikeouts and that makes his arrival to Pittsburgh so anticipated. Even though the yinzers wanted to trade him at the deadline for a bat the past two seasons. Glasnow will be in Pittsburgh this summer, and let’s hope he can provide a spark to the team like Cole did in 2013.
Jameson Taillon: 4.57 ERA, 67 IP, 5.78 K/9, 3.63 BB/9, 0.4 WAR
Taillon is back on the mound this spring after missing an entire two seasons for the former first round pick (second overall) of the Pirates in 2010. The 6’5 righty tossed 37 innings at Triple-A Indy before undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair his UCL in his elbow. Despite missing two seasons, Taillon looks healthy and could make an appearance into the Pirates rotation before the season winds down. He’ll most likely start the year in Indy’s rotation and it’ll be a huge year in his progression to shake off the rust and show the brass that he can still get hitters out like he did prior to his injury. If Taillon produces, I could see him making a late season call up and maybe providing a shot in the arm in the rotation if needed. He’s projected for mediocre numbers, but that’s not as important as getting back on the field and competing to prove he’s officially back.