MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Rotation holds key to Bucs' return to contention

Rotation holds key to Bucs' return to contention

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Clint Hurdle knows all about Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. As manager of the Pirates, he sees more than his share of them and the Cubs' lineup that works behind them.

But rather than fret about last year's standings, Hurdle is focused on getting his Pirates ready for another run at the postseason. The Bucs had played October baseball three years in a row before a rotation collapse triggered a fall into the middle of the pack in 2016.

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"Our focus needs to be on what we're doing,'' Hurdle said before a recent Grapefruit League game. "To compare things in life is one of the [most] dangerous things you can ever do. What somebody else has, the way they're able to do it … you need to focus on who you are. We know what kind of market we play in, we know what kind of team we have, we know what it takes to win baseball games.''

To do that consistently, the Pirates need to rediscover their pitching mojo. A rotation that had ranked in the top half of the National League three years in a row slid to 11th last season, with a 4.67 ERA. And that number doesn't really tell how bad things were. To get a grasp at what the Bucs are looking to fix this season, you have to also know that Hurdle was forced to use 14 starters, with none working more than Jeff Locke's 127 1/3 innings.

"When you have to use your bullpen versus using it when you want to, it changes the whole dynamic of everything,'' Hurdle said. "We were using our relievers. … It got hard.''

Like Andrew McCutchen, it was a lost year for ace Gerrit Cole, who battled a sore right elbow all season. He was on the disabled list for a month in midseason and returned to make nine starts before being shut down. Included among those was a 94-pitch complete game, and this spring he's flashed that form.

Cole on start against DR

"He came in with no glitches, no hiccups,'' Hurdle said. "We didn't even ease him back in. His velocity has been strong, his fastball finish has been real. His breaking ball, he's spinning it. He's using his changeup with conviction. His body, he looks more athletic on the mound. He's in a very good place right now.''

Hurdle feels good about the rotation behind Cole, as well. General manager Neal Huntington invested $26 million to re-sign Ivan Nova, who went 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA after being acquired from the Yankees in a deal at the Trade Deadline last season.

The Pirates are also counting heavily on 25-year-old right-hander Jameson Taillon, who made his Major League debut last June and more than held his own, compiling a 3.38 ERA over 18 starts.

"Taillon's growth and development throughout the season last year was strong, got everyone's attention,'' Hurdle said. "He finds outs, keeps the ball on the ground. He's a complete pitcher.''

Right-hander Chad Kuhl is projected to be the fourth starter based on his ability to throw strikes with four pitches (including a hard slider that can be wicked) and get hitters to hit ground balls. Hurdle is thrilled about the competition for the fifth-starter job, which is headed by rookie Tyler Glasnow but also includes former Blue Jay Drew Hutchison, Trevor Williams and lefty Steven Brault.

Hurdle on Glasnow's start

Glasnow, a 6-foot-8 right-hander, has long been rated as the organization's top prospect by MLB.com. The 23-year-old had a 1.93 ERA between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis last season -- with a strikeout rate of 11.1 per nine innings -- before pitching to mixed results when he reached Pittsburgh last summer.

"Glasnow got a little taste last year and I thought it was very medicinal for him,'' Hurdle said. "He got to work with runners on base, and there wasn't a lot of that going on at Triple-A. … He has electric stuff. To get that come together at this level with consistency and dependability would be the next stuff for him.''

There are always outside options too.

The Pirates seem a perfect fit for Jose Quintana as they try to get deep into the postseason before possibly losing McCutchen to free agency after 2018. So far, Huntington has declined to pay the high price being demanded by the White Sox, which could include Glasnow and/or 21-year-old center fielder Austin Meadows, the Bucs' No. 2-ranked prospect.

Hurdle says he trusts Huntington completely on personnel matters.

"I get asked to evaluate people frequently for my general manager,'' Hurdle said. "I evaluate them and I turn that information over to my general manager. Then that falls into his job category. … He wants to win as bad as anyone. He wants to do it in a way that makes the most sense for the ballclub.''

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.