Back in July, many speculated on the possibility of trading Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon or Luis Heredia for an established Major League hitter. The logic was that the addition of any one of those three pitchers -or even all three- would not be able to improve upon already impressive numbers by the current pitching staff. At the time, the Pirates were 5th in baseball in team ERA before heading into the All-Star break.
What a difference a month makes.
In the second half of the season, the Pirates have a team ERA of 4.42. Every starter has had at least one horrible start and every pitcher in the bullpen, save Joel Hanrahan (pun intended), has had a meltdown.
Meanwhile, in the minors, the Pirates' best pitching prospects continue to churn out start after start in an effort to force the front office's hand. In AAA, Jeff Locke is 10-5 with a 2.56 ERA and Justin Wilson is 9-6 with a 3.82 ERA. Gerrit Cole is enjoying a 3.56 ERA in AA Altoona while striking out 56 batters in 52 innings. Jameson Taillon is just coming off a dominant performance, striking out seven while only allowing one hit over six shutout innings. Taillon has yet to allow a run in his first two starts with the Altoona Curve.
Then there's Luis Heredia, who at the age of 17, is dominating college draft picks 4-5 years older than him. Heredia is 3-2 with a 2.86 ERA in 12 starts with the State College Spikes.
It was certainly a good decision by the front office to not trade any of these players for a rental. Unfortunately, that's where the good decisions end.
The Pirates elected to trade Rudy Owens -an above average prospect- and Robbie Grossman -one of their better outfield prospects- for Wandy Rodriguez in hopes of getting a pitcher with a veteran presence who has experience in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Rodriguez has been terrible. His 5.47 ERA after the All-Star break has contributed mightily to the Pirates' second half slump.
To be fair, at the time of the deal this was seen as an upgrade to the rotation and the Pirates had limited options. Of course, management put themselves in that position thanks to questionable moves earlier in the season.
Let's go back to June: the Pirates were a few games over .500 but, finding themselves one short of a five man rotation after injuries to Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton. At the time, Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens were carving up AAA hitters and the Pirates were gearing up for 20 straight days of games before the break.
Did the Pirates use Owens or Locke has spot starters? Nope. They chose to go with Brad Lincoln who was untouchable as a reliever but ineffective as a starter. Management elected to have Lincoln work his way back into starting form and they were patient with his results to say the least. In five starts, Lincoln have up 4+ runs three times, often failing to get out of the fifth inning. In his last start, he threw a gem, striking out seven while allowing only one run and two hits over six innings. Lincoln was then relegated back to the bullpen.
By making this decision, the Pirates never got a chance to evaluate Locke or Owens at the Major League level. Instead, they elected to fix the problem with a temporary solution which only damaged the club even for just a few games. Because of this, there is no way the Pirates can seriously look to Jeff Locke as a starter for the remainder of this season. You just don't call up rookies this late in the year and ask them to pitch you into a wild card spot; not even when they've thrown 4.1 scoreless innings in two relief appearances.
Obviously, it is not a given that Locke or Owens could have started back in June and pitched well. He could have been crushed in a few starts and the Pirates would have found themselves in a similar situation. However, either pitcher deserved a chance and judging by Lincoln's struggles, it probably couldn't have been worse.
This is a lesson the Pirates will learn the hard way. They've prided themselves on building from within to draw success for the next several years. At the same time, they've elected to trudge out guys like Chad Qualls while relievers in AAA (Bryan Morris, anybody?) continue to prove they deserve a chance. This is not just a front office issue, it is an organizational issue. The pitching situation is a mess and the Pirates will need to rely on the current group to turn things around. There are enough games remaining to get back to mid-season form; however, the alternatives, should the pitching continue to decline, are much too risky this late in the year.
Memo to the Pirates: use your youth.