First Pitch: What Does the Pirates Rotation Need in 2021?

Over the last two days I’ve recapped the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation, looking at the group from 2020, and the help arriving in the future. I’ll be doing recaps like this for every position all this month, wrapping up each three-article series with a First Pitch designed to suggest where the Pirates should go, starting this offseason.

The Pirates starting rotation had the 28th best fWAR in the majors this year.

The Pirates finished with the worst record in the league.

If there’s one area where the Pirates can improve the most, in order to improve significantly in the standings, it would be with the rotation.

The current rotation doesn’t look good. It’s filled with question mark after question mark:

What type of production can the Pirates expect from Mitch Keller in his first real full season?

Can Joe Musgrove be the pitcher he’s been in the last two Septembers, but over a full season?

Will Jameson Taillon return from his second Tommy John surgery to be an effective starter?

What type of pitcher will Steven Brault be?

Is there still a spot in the organization for Trevor Williams?

How good of a starter can Chad Kuhl be?

How good of a starter can JT Brubaker be, for that matter?

And what prospects can arrive to help?

I don’t know the answer to most of those, and only time will give us the answers. If I’m the Pirates, I’m banking on Keller, Musgrove, and Taillon to lead the rotation, and hoping for the best. I’d also be comfortable with Brault in the rotation, although I’m not sold on his ability to be more than a back-of-the-rotation guy. The same goes with Williams, Kuhl, and Brubaker at this stage in his career.

The problem I see with the Pirates is that they have very little chance for a top of the rotation guy.

That would require Keller meeting his upside and expectations.

It would require Musgrove to be that September pitcher all year.

Jameson Taillon would have to defy the odds and return from his second Tommy John better than ever.

Any one of these scenarios could happen, and would give the Pirates a top of the rotation guy. It’s also possible that none of these scenarios happen, and the Pirates are stuck with a rotation of middle-to-back of the rotation types, all with unclaimed potential.

The Pirates would be smart to improve their chances at getting a top of the rotation guy, or at least top of the rotation production from one spot in the rotation.

Of the questions above, I do know the answer to one: There are no prospects on the way. Cody Bolton is the best bet to arrive in 2021 and make some sort of impact in the rotation, but you also shouldn’t be counting on a rookie Cody Bolton to be anything more than bonus production.

There is free agency, and the Pirates could try to find a value on the open market to lead this rotation. A group like Keller, Musgrove, Taillon, and Brault looks a lot better with someone like Corey Kluber leading the way. Kluber is a perfect example of the potential values that could be available on the market, and a way the Pirates can add more uncertainty to their rotation with the hopes of top of the rotation outcomes.

In the last two years, Kluber has combined for 36.2 innings of work. In 2018 he had a 2.89 ERA and a 3.08 xFIP in 215 innings.

Kluber isn’t worth any cost to the Pirates if he’s going to be on the IL for another season. He is worth that risk over the chance that he could bounce back and return to his 2018 production. That type of performance would not only give the Pirates’ rotation a massive boost — essentially replacing Trevor Williams with Kluber — but it also could provide a better situation for Keller, Musgrove, and Taillon to thrive in.

If the Pirates can’t find a free agent like Kluber, the next best thing would be to get creative with one or two of the rotation spots. They’ve got starting candidates in Brault, Kuhl, and Brubaker who are all solid the first time through an order. Add one or two more of those types to the team, and you’ve got the final two rotation spots made up of bullpen games, piggyback starters, and long relievers. The Pirates probably aren’t getting good results if they send one of Brault, Kuhl, or Brubaker out there every five days, expecting six innings or more. They’re bound for better results if they send a combo of those guys out every five days, hoping for two or three solid innings each.

If I’m crafting a rotation for the 2021 season, I’d anchor the group with Keller, Taillon, and Musgrove, while trying to add a reclamation type like Kluber to lead the group. The final spot would go to the combo of Brault, Kuhl, and Brubaker, with Brault leading the way as a starter, but all three combining on that day with short leashes to maximize performance from that role.

If everything breaks right in this type of rotation setup, you could see the Pirates go from one of the worst starting rotations to a top ten group in the majors. That type of jump could be enough to take them from the worst team in the majors to a team that has a shot at contending with a few more key moves and improvements.

In the future, the Pirates might not need to rely on reclamation projects or bullpen spots. They’ve got some top prospects in Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas, Brennan Malone, and they’ve got the chance to draft Kumar Rocker in the 2021 draft. Until those prospects start arriving and producing in the majors, the Pirates need to get creative. This is a great offseason for creativity.

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


First Pitch