Questions surround Pirates starting rotation as spring training looms

Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, 7:27 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — J.A. Happ's $36 million windfall in November was the harbinger of a hard winter for Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.

At the start of the offseason, Huntington hoped to re-sign Happ to shore up the starting rotation behind aces Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. Happ, a journeyman left-hander, pitched well for the Pirates over the final two months of the 2015 season after an uneven stretch with the Seattle Mariners.

Early talks with Happ yielded little traction. On Nov. 27, not quite three weeks after the free agent market opened, Happ, 32, signed a three-year, $36 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Huntington quickly realized the challenge he faced to fill out the back end of the rotation.

“The market certainly blew up,” Huntington said. “Despite the reports of there being a ton of starting pitching available, every team needs it. There's never enough to go around. That's why it gets paid really well.”

Twelve days after Happ went to Toronto, Huntington traded second baseman Neil Walker to the New York Mets for lefty Jon Niese. In mid-December, the Pirates signed 38-year-old right-hander Ryan Vogelsong to an incentive-laden, $2 million deal.

The final piece of the likely Opening Day rotation is Jeff Locke, who has made 81 starts for the Pirates over the past three seasons. The left-hander accepted a $3.025 million contract to avoid arbitration.

When spring training begins Friday, the rotation will be different than the one that took the Pirates to their third straight National League wild-card berth last year. Will it be any better ... or worse?

“There are some staples in there, and there are some question marks in there, too,” Locke said. “Once we get toward the end of camp, we'll see how things fall out.”

Solid rotations arguably are the biggest reason for the Pirates' success over the past three seasons. Last year, the starters ranked second in the NL in wins, fourth in innings pitched, fifth in ERA and seventh in WHIP. According to Fangraphs, the staff produced 16.9 wins over replacement, which ranked fifth in the league.

In mid-January, Fangraphs offered its projections for 2016, which included lower expectations for the Pirates' starting pitchers. The rotation has an expected 13.7 WAR, which would be seventh-best in the NL.

Cole (4.3 WAR) and Liriano (3.7) again will be solid producers, according to Fangraphs. The website does not expect much from Niese (1.7), Locke (1.6) and Vogelsong (0.6).

Perhaps the most telling numbers are the projected innings pitched. The only Pirates starter who is predicted to top 200 innings is Cole (206).

Liriano is pegged for 185 innings, which would be only the third time in his career he has topped 165 in a season.

The expected workload is less for Nielse (165 innings), Locke (148) and Vogelsong (109). Top pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon will not begin the season in the majors, but they almost certainly will be needed at some point.

“There's no question some guys are going to have to step forward and pitch with a little more consistency,” Huntington said. “Some guys are going to have to step up and come out of our system and help us over the course of this year.”

If not for a sprained ankle, Glasnow, 22, would have made more than eight starts last summer at Triple-A Indianapolis. Like Cole in 2013, Glasnow is on the verge of breaking into the big leagues — although pitching coach Ray Searage cautioned that Cole back then had a more complete package, including more consistency with his breaking ball, than Glasnow does at this point.

“We'll see how that plays out this spring,” Searage said. “(Glasnow) is a smart kid and very talented.”

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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