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‘Scary’ pitching staff offers hope for Pirates this season

Chris Adamski
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Chris Archer celebrates after striking out the Cardinals' Paul DeJong during the second inning Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, at PNC Park.

Clint Hurdle referenced the baseball axiom that arguably is the oldest in a sport that has no shortage of them.

Good pitching will beat good hitting.

“Over 140 years of baseball,” Hurdle said at PiratesFest late last month.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are hoping that cliché proves true in 2019 because they believe they have some of the best pitching in the game.

Top to bottom, the Pirates appear to have assembled a pitching staff that has no glaring holes. While it might be a stretch to say the Pirates will have the best pitching in the majors this season — the lack of a bona fide, surefire No. 1 ace would make presenting such a case difficult — they have legitimate reason to maintain that pitching can carry them to great heights.

“We have a strength in place that’s real,” Hurdle said of pitching, “that’s tangible, that has experience and growing experience.”

The Pirates have a rotation anchored by Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer and Trevor Williams supported by a bullpen featuring Felipe Vazquez, Keona Kela, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez.

“Honestly, I think this pitching staff is scary,” said left-hander Steven Brault, who has pitched parts of the past three seasons with the Pirates. “I don’t think there’s any other team — especially in the division — that is going to look at us and say, ‘That’s a pitching staff we can roll over.’

“We have a very similar staff to last year; it’s just that everyone is a little older, and you’d think everyone would get better with an extra year of experience.”

Especially the Pirates, who have only one returning pitcher who was older than 28 last season — Archer, who didn’t even join the team until August. And 28-year-old Rodriguez was a rookie.

The top four in the starting rotation combine for just over 11 seasons of MLB service time. (The lone veteran addition assured to make the team, 28-year-old Jordan Lyles, potentially adds his seven seasons of service time as the fifth starter).

And though it should be noted a veteran non-roster invitee or two such as Francisco Liriano has a chance to make the Opening Day roster, the bullpen is similar. The seven men on the 40-man roster with the best chances to win jobs as relievers average just 1.9 seasons of service time and 26.3 years of age.

In other words, there is credence to Brault’s theory that the Pirates’ pitchers, on whole, have not yet peaked.

“I wouldn’t put it past us to be one of the better pitching staffs in the league, for sure,” Brault said. “As long everyone puts it together — and I’m one of the guys who needs to put it all together to be good — I know we can do that, and I know if we do, we can be scary.”

Look at the finishes to the season that three-fifths of the rotation had in 2018:

• Musgrove had a 1.09 WHIP and .240 batting average against over his final 13 starts

• Archer had a 1.07 WHIP,.217 average against, 2.70 ERA and 36 strikeouts over 30 innings in September

• The Pirates went 11-3 over Taillon’s final 14 starts; he posted a 1.12 WHIP and 2.27 ERA in that time while pitching at least six innings in all but two of those outings

• Then there’s Williams, who allowed just 11 runs over his final 13 starts (1.10 WHIP, 1.29 ERA, .216 opponent average).

“Ridiculous,” Brault said. “Every outing is six (or) seven innings, one run. It kind of got to the point to where if Trevor gives up a run everyone is like, ‘Oh (dang).’ ”

If the Pirates’ top four starters pitch like they did down the stretch last season and the top four in the bullpen maintain their career numbers, the Pirates might be in the conversation for best staff in the National League.

Hurdle points out after the Big Four relievers the Pirates struggled last season out of the bullpen. But if that can get addressed and Lyles is OK, look out.

“To have the starters we do, and to have the bullpen we do, yes, it plays,” Hurdle said. “Run prevention is always going to play a significant role.”

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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.