Early this month I wrote a post discussing some of the aces that are potentially on the market as the Pirates approach the trade deadline. I was adamant that the Pirates will not be serious contenders if they do not acquire an ace starting pitcher. A few days after my post was published Tim Williams of PiratesProspects.com wrote an opposing view point in a post titled, “The Pirates Don’t Need to Trade For an Ace at the Deadline”. Tim’s argument is the Pirates shouldn’t weaken their system and potentially their chances of contending in the future by making a big move for an ace when they are already contending without one. It is hard to debate what may or may not happen in the future. The Pirates are certainly positioned well for future success, but there are no guarantees in baseball. No one can predict how injuries may take a toll on the franchise, how good or bad the Pirates’ NL Central Division foes will be in developing players, or a litany of other factors that will affect the Pirates chances to contend in 2015, 2016, 2017, and beyond. What we do know is in 2014 the NL Central is a winnable division. It is a four team race and all four teams have flaws. The Pirates are one of those four teams. However, the Pirates’ biggest flaw appears to be much more fatal than the flaws of their division foes. The Pirates lack an ace and that usually renders a team a pretender instead of a contender.
So why is an ace so important to the Pirates chances? Getting to the playoffs without a top shelf starting pitcher is not only an extremely difficult task, it is practically unheard of. Being a factor in the playoffs without an ace is even less likely. You have to go back to the 2006 Mets to find a team that won a playoff series without having a starting pitcher with a 3.0 fWAR for the season. That season Tom Glavine was the Mets most productive starting pitcher with a 2.5 fWAR. Of course Glavine is a 300 game winner and a member of the Hall of Fame and also posted a 15-7 record that season. The last team to make it to the World Series without having a 3.0 fWAR was the 2004 Cardinals. Chris Carpenter led that staff with 2.8 fWAR. Carpenter missed a few starts with injuries and still managed to post a 15-5 record as well as that 2.8 fWAR. To find a World Series winner without a 3.0 fWAR pitcher you have to go all the way back to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles led by Dave McNally with a 2.9 fWAR. McNally would prove to be a really good pitcher over his career. He would post 4 straight 20 win seasons from 1968 thru 1971. That 1966 Orioles team also had 20 year old Jim Palmer on the staff. Palmer would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame.
A pitcher that posts 3.0 fWAR has enjoyed a good season, but that doesn’t mean that pitcher passes the “ace” sniff test. However, even if using the paltry standard of 3.0 fWAR the Pirates have nothing close to an ace this season. The current fWAR leader on the Pirates is Charlie Morton at 1.0 fWAR. At his current pace Morton won’t even reach 2.0 fWAR, let alone 3.0. Jeff Locke has thrown well in his 8 starts. If he continues to pitch like he has thus far he could crack 2.0 fWAR. But does anyone view Jeff Locke as a #1 starting pitcher? It was hoped that Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano would lead the starting rotation this season. Right now neither appear capable of doing so. Cole is on the DL with a shoulder injury. When Cole has pitched he has alternated between mediocre and good. He has been far from dominant. Liriano looks more and more like a guy incapable of repeating the success he had in 2013. It just doesn’t look like the Pirates are going to have a quality top of the rotation starting pitcher for the stretch run unless they miraculously are able acquire one before the trade deadline. If they do not acquire one they have very little chance of playing in October. As I have already shown history is not very kind to teams that lack an ace.