PITTSBURGH -- Good pitching beats good hitting, as the saying goes. Pirates starter Jameson Taillon repeated the baseball adage last month. Manager Clint Hurdle did the same, adding: "It always has."
The Bucs are counting on that still being true in 2019.
Left-hander Steven Brault called the Pirates' collection of arms "scary." Hurdle and Taillon used another word -- "strength" -- to describe the rotation. That will be the group to watch as players begin reporting to the Pirate City complex in the coming days.
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Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove will be back on the starting staff. Chris Archer will return for his first full season in a Pirates uniform. Right-hander Jordan Lyles will likely round out the group, though Brault and right-hander Nick Kingham are also competing for the final spot.
"I don't think any other team, especially in the division, is going to look at us and say, 'Oh, that's a pitching staff we're going to be able to roll over.' We're not going to be," Brault said. "I wouldn't put it past us to be one of the better pitching staffs in the league, for sure, as long as everyone can put it together."
The last point is what should make for an interesting Spring Training. This is not a rotation full of established veterans. Each starter has something to prove after last year.
Taillon went wire-to-wire in the rotation for the first time last season, working 191 innings with a 3.20 ERA in 32 starts, but he wants to take another step forward. How will his new slider enhance his arsenal now that he's had a full offseason to work on it? Can he reach his "ace" potential this year?
Archer, 30, already has that "ace" reputation with two All-Star nods and three straight 200-inning, 200-strikeout seasons on his resume. The Pirates believe Archer is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he hasn't posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2015, and he's coming off a season in which he recorded a 4.31 ERA while pitching only 148 1/3 innings due to injuries.
Archer said last season that he is still not a finished product, and he backed up his words last year by adding a curveball and reintroducing a two-seam fastball. He returned to top form in September, posting a 2.70 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 30 innings after ditching his windup and gaining familiarity with catcher Francisco Cervelli. Can he build off of that?
Williams might have been one of baseball's best second-half stories -- and maybe one of the least heralded. The 26-year-old right-hander doesn't have an overpowering arsenal, but he put together a 1.29 ERA over his final 13 starts and he finished the season with a 3.11 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in 31 starts.
There will be talk of regression for Williams, considering his 3.86 FIP and his low strikeout rate. But Williams is a cerebral pitcher, highly aware of his strengths and weaknesses and when to make adjustments. And for all the questions about his stuff, he's made 57 Major League starts with a 3.53 ERA in that role. Maybe he's the rare breed of pitcher, like the Cubs' Kyle Hendricks, who can consistently outperform his peripherals.
"He's not the prototypical sexy pitcher," Taillon said. "He's a student of the game, and he just doesn't give up hard hits -- he just doesn't. His contact control is amazing. When he pitches, guys are just hitting weak dribblers all over the place, cursing themselves, breaking bats."
Then there's Musgrove, one of four players the Pirates received from the Astros for Gerrit Cole. Musgrove's season was bookended by injuries, limiting him to only 115 1/3 innings over 19 starts. But there was a lot to like about the 26-year-old right-hander's performance when he was healthy. In his return to the rotation, Musgrove put together a 4.06 ERA (with a 3.59 FIP) and 1.18 WHIP while leading all Pirates starters with a 4.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Musgrove also proved himself to be a fierce competitor, a loyal teammate and one of the club's most athletic players. The missing element was good health, and that will again be a question after he underwent abdominal surgery earlier this offseason.
"I'm excited to see what he can do over a full year," Taillon said.