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Looking way ahead: who is in the Pirates playoff rotation?


SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – After watching Francisco Liriano‘s masterful outing last night, assuming the Pirates play in a postseason series, you’d have to think he slots in as the No.1 or No. 2 starter in Clint Hurdle‘s playoff rotation.


Liriano misses bats, induces groundballs and has cut his walk rate. Ditto for A.J. Burnett, who is option 1 or 1a for a potential Pirates playoff rotation.


But who do you slot in at No. 3 and No. 4?


The candidates:


Charlie Morton

Jeff Locke

Wandy Rodriguez (if he proves his health)

Gerrit Cole 


That’s four options for two slots:


The case for  Morton: He has posted a 21-to-2 groundball-to-flyball ratio over his last two starts. If he qualified for groundball rate, he’d lead the majors (69 percent) with a 10 point lead over Justin Masterson. His fastball velocity is at a career best. He’s getting some swing and from his curve.


The case against Morton: He’s been hit hard at times and is still finding his way back, mechanically, from Tommy John surgery. He lacks big-game experience and doesn’t miss a ton of bats. He’s a two-pitch pitcher at the moment, which might allow opponents to figure him out quickly.


The case for Locke: He was a first-half All-Star. He’s missed more bats as the season has gone along, striking out a batter per inning in  the second half of the season. He’s shown superb command in the past. If you believe there is ability behind his MLB-best strand rate, then maybe his heartbeat really does slow in pressure situations.


The case against Locke: His walk rate has grown as the season has gone along. It’s nearly six walks per nine innings in the second half.  He’s regressed some and he has the potential for further regression if his strand rate collapses. He has fringe-average velocity and lacks a dominant secondary pitch.


The case for Rodriguez: if Rodriguez proves he’s healthy and returns to his mid-rotation form than there’s a very good chance this veteran is one of the rotation members. He has the most MLB experience.


The case against Rodriguez: the giant question of health, his extreme home-road splits, and he lacks the upside of Cole or even Morton.


The case for Cole: from a pure stuff standpoint he gets the nod. He has the best fastball velocity in the major leagues and his slider has come along as a strikeout pitch. He also has handled big moments well. In a key start in the 2011 College World Series, he struck out 13 TCU batters and allowed just two runs over eight innings. He was also impressive in his much-anticipated MLB debut. He’s done well in big moments.


The case against Cole: for starters, we don’t know what his innings limit is. He’s also a rookie, which managers are often hesitant to trust in big-game situations. Also, Cole might might be the most intriguing bullpen option in the group. Starters typically add 2-3 mph when pitching in shorter stints from the bullpen (Chris Sale once hit 99 mph as a reliever) … so might Cole live in the 100-103 mph range as a postseason setup man? Shelby Miller did well in that role last season.


Cole said on XM Radio yesterday that he’s open to moving to the bullpen, but the club has not discussed the possibility with him as of yet.


Pirates GM Neal Huntington said a few weeks back that if the club has four better options than Cole for a playoff rotation they are in great shape.

Could Gerrit Cole be a right-handed Aroldis Chapman from the bullpen in the postseason?


In summary …


The Pirates have options, which is of course a good thing. As James Santelli noted on our roundtable discussion the other day, the Pirates could piggy-back two starters- like Morton and Locke – in a game. Pitchers typically regress the third and fourth time they face a lineup, so the piggy-back theory is interesting.


I personally like going with your best arms, so I’d hand one of the rotation spots to Cole, who is only improving as the season goes along. I actually like Morton over Locke, as I think he has more upside going forward.


Each of the four candidates still has time to build their postseason resumes. But as of today, who ya got?


It’s an interesting discussion, but of course it might be simply be a thought experiment if the Pirates can’t hold on and win the Central.


– TS





  1. NMR says:

    Great topic and analysis, Travis.
    Since you asked…
    Liriano, AJ, Wandy, Locke. But I also wouldn’t be afraid to change it specific to team played.
    Even ignoring that Wandy’s home/road splits likely have a lot of small sample size influence (3.75 FIP away vs 4.06 home in 2012), you can always set your playoff rotation so that he is more likely to make home starts. He’s absolutely one of the best four when healthy.
    Locke comes down to trust. Morton may indeed have more upside, but that doesn’t get you much unless he reaches it within the next month and a half. Plus, there’s no way I trust him against lefty heavy lineups like the Cards, Braves, and Reds. Cole certainly has better stuff, but I don’t trust that he’ll stick to peppering the bottom of the zone with two seemers. If he reverts back to his elevated four seemer, playoff teams will rock him.

  2. BostonsCommon says:

    I’m going to take the stance that Wandy cannot be considered for the rotation, just because he is still too far away IMO to be a reliable, likely candidate. Hope he gets back, but for the sake of this exercise, he is not an option.
    That said, Liriano get’s the ball in game 1, especially if it’s at PNC Park, and especially if its against the Cards. He and AJ will clearly lead the staff and hopefully will take the ball as many times as possible. Cole and Locke are my guys after the headliners. If games 3 and 4 are at PNC, Locke gets 3, and Liriano/Cole gets 4, depending on off days. If they are on the road, Cole moves into the 3 spot, with Liriano/ Locke ready for game 4.
    Charlie is in the ‘pen, ready to step in and provide innings should ANY of the starters not have their good stuff, or jeopardize a game early.

  3. Steelag70 says:

    Not if AJ pitches like he has the last two times out…his post-season ERA is also over 5….

  4. SJB says:

    Since we’ll be looking ahead for quite a while yet and based on yesterday’s pants pooping episode, I will say this…not Burnett. Unless he picks himself up in September like he’s done in the past, but that would be looking way ahead wouldn’t it? ;)

    I know they will want to put the ball in AJ’s hand just because of who he is and the leadership intangibles, but from a performance perspective, right now, I wouldn’t. As of now, I’d like to see Liriano, Wandy (he should be healthy and well rested) and Locke/Morton…whoever is the most mentally stable come that time.

  5. Travis Sawchik says:

    A lot of these decisions with the No. 3 and No. 4 starters would be heavily matchup dependent, I agree.

    Not such a small sample on Wandy, howeve. Career splits: 3.39 career home ERA, 4.71 road ERA

  6. Travis Sawchik says:

    I think Hurdle’s preference would be to give Burnett the ball in a Game 1. …. Wandy’s health is starting to look like a very important development. He appeared to throw the ball pretty well Friday in a sim game

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