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The Pirates rotation still needs upgrades

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To stay competitive in a brutal NL Central, Pittsburgh has more work to do on their starting rotation before they can be in the same conversation as the Cubs.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Pirates put up an incredible season and finished the year as the second-best team in the game. Unfortunately, they not only finished in second place to the vaunted Cardinals, but they once again ran into the wild card ace ‘buzzsaw', this time in Jake Arrieta.

Pittsburgh posted their best season in nearly a quarter century in large part because of their rotation. Going into 2016, the roster remains largely the same with a few notable exceptions (the outfield is identical but there are some shifts in the infield with the Neil Walker / Jon Niese trade). Gerrit Cole is still only 25 years old, and Francisco Liriano is projected by Steamer and ZiPS to pitch as well as he did last year. The larger changes are in the back of the rotation, where pitching coach Ray Searage helped generate some value out of Charlie "Ground Chuck" Morton and J.A. Happ.

Among NL teams, Bucco starters finished fourth in innings pitched (967.1), fifth in ERA (3.53), second in FIP (3.34), and fourth in xFIP (3.50). Overall their starting pitchers were the fifth-most valuable in the National League, posting a 16.9 fWAR.

Despite being in the top third of the league in the aforementioned stats, they still did not win the division -- a testament to the strength of the National League Central. If the Pirates wish to position themselves for a breakthrough division championship, upgrading their rotation is paramount, especially in light of the upgrades the Cubs have made over the past month and a half.

With a 2015 starting rotation projected by ZiPS for ten wins above replacement, the Pirates blew past the projection to post an fWAR of nearly 17 Wins. Gerrit Cole's breakout year led the way for Pittsburgh, with veterans Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett contributing the second- and third-most value in their rotation. At the back end of the rotation, Vance Worley, Happ, and Charlie Morton contributed in their own right, earning the team a combined 4.5 wins (which is about twice what was expected).

2015 Rotation 2015 ZiPS 2015 fWAR
Francisco Liriano* 3 3.6
Gerrit Cole* 3 5.4
A.J. Burnett* 2 2.8
Jeff Locke* 1 1.6
Vance Worley* 1 0.4
J.A. Happ -- 2.1
Charlie Morton -- 0.4

*Pre-season 2015 Projected Starter

With the exception of Worley, every Pirate starting pitcher outperformed their ZiPS projections. Cole blew past his projected three wins, Liriano, Burnett, and Locke were on the higher end of their projection, and Pittsburgh found value from Happ and Morton when they needed reinforcements. While it may not be reasonable to expect 80 percent of a rotation to outplay their projections, the Pirates' 2016 projected rotation hardly looks set up for a repeat performance.

2016 Rotation 2016 ZiPS 2015 fWAR
Francisco Liriano 4 3.6
Gerrit Cole 4 5.4
Jon Niese 1 1.7
Jeff Locke 1 1.6
Kyle Lobstein (replacing Allen Webster) -- 0.4

With the retirement of Burnett and the departure of the entire back-end trio (Worley / Happ / Morton), the projected starting rotation looks quite different going into 2016. Cole and Liriano remain the pillars of the rotation with the average-at-best / subpar-at-worst Jeff Locke lined up as the number three starter. Locke is going into his age-28 season and has yet to throw more than 170 innings. His fielding independent pitching numbers are kind, showing him as a league-average starter, but his ERA last season was painful.

The biggest loss is Burnett, whose 2.8 Wins will be difficult to replace. Between A.J.'s and J.A.'s departure, the Pirates need to find five wins in order to stay approximately where they were last season. The Neil Walker / Jon Niese trade was certainly a bet worth taking for the Pirates, as Niese has posted four seasons of two Wins or better in his career, including 2011 and 2012 when he put up 2.6 and 2.7 fWAR, respectively.

Last month I wrote about the Allen Webster trade, which was interesting for about three weeks before he announced he was leaving MLB to pursue a pitching career in Korea, subsequently making my article as relevant as Adam Sandler. Replacing Webster is Kyle Lobstein, a 26-year-old southpaw who has pitched a total of 103 major league innings.

The front of the Pirates rotation is as solid as it was last year, but there are significant questions about the middle and the back-end. If you squint and see the Pirates getting the most out of all of their projected rotation, they probably still need to find lightning in a bottle from at least one more starter because a number of guys they have penciled into the rotation simply do not have a track record of tossing near 200 innings.

Pirates owner Bob Nutting used to say ownership would invest in the team when they showed they could win. It was never a reality that Pittsburgh would sign David Price or Zack Greinke, but the iron is hot. This team already missed out on a number of mid-rotation players like Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija. They would be well-served to take a good look at Ian Kennedy and Yovani Gallardo, lest they continue to fall behind their NL Central competitors and be forced to play for another Wild Card spot.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score and a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.