Bob Smizik: Pitching looks to be Pirates' strength

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Day 2 of Pirates evaluations. Today -- three days before the opener -- the starters and relievers.

STARTERS

Francisco Liriano: He was a true ace in every sense last season. His final ERA, 3.03, while good was no indication of how well he pitched. If two completely out-of-character starts -- one in August, one in September, in which he gave up 17 earned runs in 5 1/3 innings -- are removed his 3.02 ERA becomes 2.14 and a 1.22 WHIP becomes 1.11. Left-handers batted .131 against him, right-handers .249. Of course, the big question is: Can he do it again? In his MLB career, which dates back to 2005, he has never put strong back-to-back years together.

Gerrit Cole: Liriano pitched like a true No. 1 last season and Cole, as a rookie, did the same in the final month of the season and the playoffs. They are capable of giving the Pirates an excellent top of the rotation. But Cole also showed some rookie foibles in his first three months. It’s probably expecting not just too much, but way too much, for Cole to continue to pitch as he did in September and October. But he has remarkable talent. Pitchers, starters in particular, are almost impossible to predict. Cole is going to be very good to excellent. But that might not happen in 2014.

Charlie Morton: Had he thrown enough innings last year (he didn’t debut until June 13), Morton would have finished 18th in the NL in ERA, ahead of some very good pitchers. He still has a weakness against left-handed hitters, an .844 OPS-against, but owns right-handers (and there’s more of them) with a .552 OPS-against. If he can do better vs. lefties -- he has a incredibly high 14 percent walk rate against them the past three years -- there’s no telling how effective he can be. He had the best ground ball ratio, by far, of any MLB pitcher.

Wandy Rodriguez: The last time he had an ERA over 4.00 was in 2007. If he can regain his pre-injury form, he’s an excellent back-of-the rotation option. He’s been pain free in spring training, but finger will be crossed with him in his early starts.

Edinson Volquez: He’ll be THE story every time he pitches in the first month. A fifth starter does not have to be anything special. He just needs to keep his team in the game most of the time. With a 5.09 ERA over the past three seasons, Volquez has not been able to do that often enough. With Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton at Indianapolis and Jameson Taillon available in June, it remains to be seen how long the Pirates stay with Volquez, if he struggles. His $5 million salary might earn him more time than he deserves.

Starting pitching grade: B

BULLPEN

Jason Grilli: He had a 6.35 ERA in July before going on the DL with a forearm strain. He was slow rounding into top form when he returned in September but appeared to be sharp in the postseason. Grilli should be close to as good as he was for the first three months of last season but with his uneven finish there is slight cause for concern.

Mark Melancon: He was a superb eighth-inning pitcher and then a fine replacement for Grilli in August. He stumbled in September with a 4.72 ERA. Among pitchers who threw more than 60 innings, he was second in the NL in ERA (1.39) and fourth in OPS-against (.511). Surprisingly, he was much better against left-handed batters, .148 BAA vs. a not-very-good .286 against right-handers. Of note, the second-best year of his career, 2011, was followed by a disastrous 2012.

Tony Watson: After struggling in April and May (combined ERA of 4.44), he was one of the best relievers in MLB the final four months with an ERA of 1.19. Was equally effective against left and right-handed batters. Did not allow a home run in 102 at bats against lefties. His 0.88 WHIP was third best in the NL (60 or more innings).

Justin Wilson: Along with Watson, he gives manager Clint Hurdle the luxury of two outstanding left-handed relievers. Like Watson, he handles batters from both sides of the plate equally well -- .200 BAA vs. left-handers, .189 vs. right-handers.

Jeanmar Gomez: He was a versatile pitcher who started eight games -- the Pirates won all of them -- and posted a 2.80 ERA in that role. He was used more in long relief but has shown the ability to move into more crucial roles and will probably do that this season.

Bryan Morris: Had a 4.62 ERA after the All-Star Game and 6.14 in September, but Hurdle continued to maintain confidence in him. After a bad early outing, he's had a good spring and probably secured his roster spot with it.

Stolmy Pimentel: If he were not out of options, he’d probably be back at Indianapolis. But the Pirates like him too much as a potential future starter. Probably will handle the long relief role.

Vin Mazzaro: He looks to be the eighth man in a seven-man bullpen. Pitched well last season but the Pirates like Morris better and Mazzaro is already in his first year of arbitration.

Bullpen grade: A

Overall pitching grade: B+


First Published March 28, 2014 5:30 AM

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