When AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez went down with injuries, the general consensus around Pittsburgh was “uh oh”. Instead, the Pittsburgh Pirates have gone on a tear, going 7-2 on a nine game road trip thanks to a six game winning streak.
Now, Rodriguez and Burnett are close to returning, with Wandy already on a rehab assignment in AAA Indianapolis. He could be back within a week while Burnett’s status is still unclear.
Nevertheless, the Pirates should get both of these pitchers back relatively soon which means tough decisions for the front office on the horizon. When they return, the Pirates will have seven starting pitchers on their roster which makes for two too many.
So who stays and who goes?
Well, four of the five starters are already set in stone. AJ Burnett is the ace and unquestioned leader of the pitching staff, Wandy Rodriguez owns the second lowest ERA among NL southpaws since 2009 (Cole Hamels is number 1), Jeff Locke has the second lowest ERA in the National League and is 0.01 points away from tying the NL leader, Matt Harvey. And let us not forget about Francisco Liriano who has 61 strikeouts in 54.2 innings while boasting a 2.30 ERA.
That leaves Charlie Morton, Jeanmar Gomez and Gerrit Cole for the fifth and final spot in the rotation.
While fans obviously want to see the former first overall pick, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates should go with Charlie Morton instead and send Cole back to AAA to get him ready for September call-ups.
To keep Cole on the big league team, the Pirates would need to DFA or release a starter and Morton would be the most likely option. There seems to be a lot of general disdain towards Morton which is puzzling considering how he’s pitched since coming back from Tommy John Surgery. Morton has an ERA of 2.81 (lower than Cole’s) while striking out twelve and walking six in three starts.
Cole has been impressive as well boasting a 3-0 record with a 3.44 ERA and eight strikeouts to one walk.
But the reason everyone wants Gerrit Cole to stay is because of his 100 mph fastball and the fact that he symbolizes the youth movement of talent finally making its way to Pittsburgh. Those make for great headlines, but what happens if Cole struggles?
Morton may not possess the 100 mph fastball, but he does throw in the mid 90′s with just as much movement as Cole and he has more confidence in his breaking ball.
What if the Pittsburgh Pirates HAVE to demote Cole due to performance? He was masterful in his last start against Anaheim but when he surrendered a home run to Albert Pujols, you could tell he was slightly rattled. Also, he still needs to get more out of his offspeed, especially his change up. Major League hitters will eventually catch up to that fastball and if Cole doesn’t have his offspeed working, it could be an issue.
If Cole needs to be demoted, that leaves Jeanmar Gomez as the fifth starter. Gomez has been solid so far this season, but he, like Wandy, has had to deal with forearm/elbow inflammation. If another starter goes down, the Pirates will need to rely on Brandon Cumpton or another AAA arm. They may even need to bring Cole back even if the kinks aren’t worked out.
For now, the Pirates can afford to keep Charlie Morton and send Gerrit Cole down to AAA when the rotation gets back to full strength. If Morton implodes, they can either move him to the bullpen or release him. But if they stick with Gerrit Cole, they wont be able to get Morton back should Cole struggle. Obviously there are other factors like Cole’s Super Two status, but if you’re just looking at being a contending team, you will need as much pitching as possible. Now is not the time to throw away perfectly good number five starters to keep a big name, especially when you can have both.
Then, when the rosters expand in September, call up Gerrit Cole and roll with a six man rotation for the rest of the season. That allows 36 year old AJ Burnett and 34 year old Wandy Rodriguez to get a little extra rest heading towards what could be Pittsburgh’s first postseason appearance in 21 years.