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