Around the Horn: Cole fronts young rotation

Around the Horn: Cole fronts young rotation

With Spring Training less than two weeks away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2017 roster. This is the seventh of an eight-part series checking in on Pittsburgh's current and future options at each position. Next up: the rotation.

Big question: Do the Bucs have what they need?

Last year, the Pirates broke camp with a rotation of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jonathon Niese, Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio, and the group was unsuccessful in a variety of ways. Nicasio and Locke wound up in the bullpen. Liriano and Niese were two of the National League's worst starters before being traded. Cole wasn't quite himself, either, during an injury-plagued year.

This year's Opening Day rotation will look significantly different aside from Cole, with a host of young arms set to line up behind him. But the question remains the same: Do the Pirates have enough talent and depth in their rotation to get back to the postseason?

More specifically, will Cole be the ace? Can Jameson Taillon be a front-line arm? Is Ivan Nova's renaissance for real? How will their young arms round out the rotation?

The locks: Cole, Taillon, Nova

Cole was terrific in 2015 but injured and inconsistent last season. Still, Pittsburgh's top starter managed to post a 2.78 ERA through July, capped by his first career complete game. The Pirates are counting on him to be healthy as the anchor of their rotation.

Taillon will effectively replace Liriano as the No. 2 starter. Taillon was arguably the Bucs' most consistent starter last year, with a 3.38 ERA and 12 quality starts in 18 outings. He's wary of the sophomore slump, but the Bucs believe in the former No. 2 overall pick.

Taillon strikes out Fowler

Nova is back on a three-year, $26 million deal after a dramatic second-half turnaround in Pittsburgh. The veteran righty compiled a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts, showing remarkable command (52 strikeouts, three walks) and confidence in his pitches. He will provide leadership for a young rotation and, the Pirates hope, plenty of innings.

Nova on staying in Pittsburgh

Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Second base | Shortstop | Third base | OF

The likely fourth: Chad Kuhl

The Pirates clearly value Kuhl, who impressed more often than not in his rookie season. He hasn't been guaranteed a spot, but his experience last year and ground-ball tendencies give him the inside track.

Berry on Kuhl's rotation spot

The competition: Drew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault

Glasnow, MLBPipeline.com's No. 9 overall prospect, has the highest ceiling as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter. But his Major League debut showed there's still work left to do. Williams mostly pitched out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh after recording a 2.53 ERA in Triple-A Indianapolis, while Brault finished an up-and-down debut with a 4.86 ERA.

Glasnow part of rotation plans

Hutchison made only six appearances for the Pirates last year, but the club has spoken highly of the 26-year-old right-hander since acquiring him last summer. He has the most Major League experience of this group, with a 30-21 record and a 4.89 ERA in 82 games (74 starts), and pitching coach Ray Searage has a reputation for reviving careers.

Depth: Nick Kingham, Lisalverto Bonilla, Clay Holmes, Frank Duncan

This list will include the rest of the fifth-starter candidates and a handful of other Minor League arms like Tyler Eppler, Casey Sadler, Angel Sanchez and Brandon Cumpton. Lefty Wade LeBlanc will be stretched out this spring, and non-roster invitee Josh Lindblom -- one of the most interesting stories in camp -- also has starting experience.

Kingham on return from surgery

Kingham, Pittsburgh's No. 10 prospect and "forgotten man" could be ready early this summer. General manager Neal Huntington has referred to Bonilla as a "prospect pitcher," and the Bucs protected Holmes (No. 11) from the Rule 5 Draft. Duncan quietly thrived in Triple-A last season, posting a 2.33 ERA in 20 starts.

Next up: Mitch Keller

Likely to start in Class A Advanced Bradenton, Keller is still a few years away. The 20-year-old righty significantly improved his stock last season, recording a 2.46 ERA with a ridiculous 7.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio for Class A West Virginia last year.

Top Prospects: Keller, PIT

The former second-round Draft pick climbed 24 spots to No. 48 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list. The Pirates named him their Minor League Pitcher of the Year last September.

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.