Bolstering rotation is Pirates' top offseason priority

With thin free-agent market, Bucs could deal from strength for veteran starter

Bolstering rotation is Pirates' top offseason priority

PITTSBURGH -- Last offseason, the Pirates overhauled the back end of their rotation. Out went A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton, and in came Jonathon Niese, Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong.

The Bucs hoped they could get enough production out of Niese and either Nicasio or Vogelsong early in the season to hold them over until their crop of talented young starting pitchers arrived. All three wound up in the bullpen -- Nicasio in June, Niese in July, Vogelsong out of Spring Training before returning to a depleted rotation in August -- and too often struggled as starters.

"Very easy to find fault with that thought process," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Certainly after it didn't play, it's very easy to find fault with.

"The game begins and ends with starting pitching."

So, too, will this offseason. As the Pirates settle in for the winter, their top priority will be upgrading a rotation that fell far below expectations in 2016.

Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are set to return atop the rotation, and it should be noted that a healthy year from Cole and a full year of Taillon will go a long way toward improving the staff's overall production.

Cole goes the distance

Chad Kuhl, who put up a 4.20 ERA in 14 starts as a rookie, has most likely earned a spot at the back end of the group. Another job should go to one of Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, Steven Brault or Trevor Williams.

Assuming the Pirates don't open next season with two of those four in the rotation -- and doing so would run contrary to what they learned this year about the necessity of pitching depth -- then they'll need another starter.

"It continues to get reinforced to us that it's not a five-man rotation. It's a seven- or eight-man rotation," manager Clint Hurdle said toward the end of the season. "In an ideal world, you'd like to have a veteran. If you have good enough young starting pitching, just to put a veteran in there to have a veteran doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But if that veteran is one of your best five and can take down innings and anchor a staff, that's a good situation."

Pittsburgh sorely lacked a reliable innings-eater this year. In 2015, the Pirates had four pitchers finish with more than 160 innings, three of them with ERAs at or below Francisco Liriano's 3.38. This year? Jeff Locke, who spent nearly 2 1/2 months down the stretch as a little-used long reliever, led the staff with 127 1/3 innings while posting a 5.44 ERA.

But is there a reliable veteran starter out there for the taking? It's a remarkably thin market for free-agent starting pitchers, which is why the Pirates have been aggressive in trying to extend right-hander Ivan Nova.

Nova's complete-game victory

If the Bucs can't find a free agent who fits their profile, they will not shy away from the trade market. They expressed an interest in a number of starters before the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline this year, but Pittsburgh found the asking prices to be too high, as they often are when sellers can take advantage of buyers' desperation.

"That's absolutely something we'll look to do this offseason," Huntington said. "It is a thin free-agent market, which creates an expensive trade market, but we've got some good players that we think could help us acquire a starting pitcher."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.