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Around the Horn: Pirates counting on rotation

Archer, Taillon, Musgrove, Williams will look to carry load in '19
MLB.com @adamdberry

A number of young players took to the back fields of Pirate City on Monday as the club's voluntary minicamp began. The full squad will be there next month, and with Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Bucs' roster. This is the first part of a series checking in on the club's current and future options at each position. First: the starting rotation.

Big question: Can they carry the load?
The Pirates' rotation provided reason for optimism at various points last season. Jameson Taillon was excellent -- ace-like, even -- after April. Trevor Williams had a 1.29 ERA over his final 13 starts. Chris Archer looked more like himself in September. Limited by injuries, Joe Musgrove still showed the athleticism and arsenal to be a starter.

A number of young players took to the back fields of Pirate City on Monday as the club's voluntary minicamp began. The full squad will be there next month, and with Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Bucs' roster. This is the first part of a series checking in on the club's current and future options at each position. First: the starting rotation.

Big question: Can they carry the load?
The Pirates' rotation provided reason for optimism at various points last season. Jameson Taillon was excellent -- ace-like, even -- after April. Trevor Williams had a 1.29 ERA over his final 13 starts. Chris Archer looked more like himself in September. Limited by injuries, Joe Musgrove still showed the athleticism and arsenal to be a starter.

It was a season of growth for Taillon, Williams and Musgrove -- Taillon's first season uninterrupted by injuries or cancer, Williams' first full season as a Major League starter and Musgrove's return to the rotation. Even Archer had to handle an injury and the end of his biannual trade-rumor frenzy.

Video: PIT@CIN: Taillon strikes out the side in the 2nd

But there will be little margin for error for the Pirates this year, no room for growing pains. They need their starters to be effective from Opening Day until October. The front office gave up a lot of young talent to get Archer because the club believed this core could contend, and the foundation of this core is its pitching staff.

The starters: Taillon, Archer, Williams, Musgrove
Taillon took a step forward last season by using more fastballs up in the zone, throwing more curveballs and introducing a slider that helped him take off in May. Williams may be due for some regression after an incredible second-half run, but he's made it clear he belongs somewhere in the rotation.

There will be questions heading into Spring Training about Musgrove and Archer, both of whom underwent offseason surgery. They are recovering well, by all accounts, and should be ready in plenty of time for Opening Day. Health is the key for Musgrove, who completed six innings in 14 of his 19 starts.

Video: Archer happy to call Pittsburgh his new home

Archer has a 4.12 ERA (99 ERA+) over the past three seasons, but he's the opposite of Williams in that he seems due for some positive regression based on his 3.64 FIP during that span. The Pirates would love to see Archer build on his September success, which he attributed to trusting catcher Francisco Cervelli, and join Taillon atop the rotation.

The competition: Jordan Lyles, Nick Kingham, Steven Brault
This may be forgotten, but there probably wouldn't be a competition if Chad Kuhl was healthy. The right-hander has had an up-and-down start to his career, but he possesses the raw stuff to be an effective starter. Alas, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018, and he won't return until '20.

Lyles looks like the favorite to lock down the final spot, if his pitch-usage changes from 2018 lead to a successful spring. Pittsburgh hopes the veteran right-hander has entered a new phase of his career by leaning more heavily on his fastball and curveball -- a strategy that has worked out well for former Pirates starter Charlie Morton, among others, in recent years.

Video: PIT@CIN: Kingham freezes Suarez, escapes a jam in 1st

It's too early to count out Kingham and Brault, though. Kingham struggled after an incredible debut, but he could serve as a solid back-end starter if he bounces back. (He's also out of Minor League options, so he'll need to find a spot somewhere on the staff.) Brault seems to be bound for the bullpen, but the Bucs will take another look at their lone lefty rotation candidate.

Mitch Keller, ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect by MLB Pipeline, figures to claim the final spot at some point this summer. If nobody earns the job before then, the Pirates could roll with an "opener" every fifth day.

Depth: Clay Holmes, J.T. Brubaker, Tyler Eppler, Alex McRae, Brandon Waddell
Holmes showed his upside before the All-Star break, working six scoreless innings against the Brewers. But the big right-hander was on the mound for two low points of the second half: a 13-10 loss to the Giants on Aug. 10 and a demoralizing, 15-inning defeat in Milwaukee on Aug. 24.

Video: Hayes, Brubaker named Pirates Minor League POY

Brubaker, the Bucs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, joined the 40-man roster after putting up a 3.10 ERA over 22 starts for Triple-A Indianapolis. Eppler, a non-roster invitee, may get a shot as he enters his third full season in Triple-A. McRae was bumped off the roster but immediately invited to big league camp. Waddell, who spent most of last season in Indianapolis, is a command-and-control lefty.

They all could serve as rotation or long-relief depth if necessary, but there aren't any proven options in this group.

In the pipeline
Keller, ranked as MLB Pipeline's No. 16 overall prospect, will start the season in Triple-A and likely make his big league debut later this year. He is the only pitcher listed among the Pirates' Top 10 prospects and the surest bet to significantly bolster Pittsburgh's rotation in the near future.

Right-hander Dario Agrazal, 24, returned to Double-A Altoona last season after joining the 40-man roster last offseason. Agrazal doesn't miss a lot of bats, but he consistently limits walks and keeps the ball in the park. On the other hand, Pirates No. 11 prospect Luis Escobar's mix of good stuff and troublesome command led to a 4.54 ERA over seven Double-A starts.

The Pirates dealt from this group by trading lefty Taylor Hearn (for Keone Kela) and righty Shane Baz (for Archer) last summer. They still have a bunch of projectable arms in the lower Minors including Tahnaj Thomas, Steven Jennings, Braxton Ashcraft, Gage Hinsz, Travis MacGregor, Cody Bolton, Domingo Robles, Santiago Florez, Braeden Ogle and Max Kranick.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.

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