The Pittsburgh Pirates earned a playoff berth for the first time in over 20 years last season, spearheaded by a pitching staff that finished third in the National League in ERA (3.27) and the notable resurgence of starters A.J. Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA). Pitching coach Ray Searage deserves a lot of credit for the performance of the Pittsburgh pitching staff last year, and he will get another potential reclamation project this spring with the team’s signing of Edinson Volquez to a one-year deal.
Volquez emerged as one of the top young pitchers in the National League, and in all of baseball, with a breakout season for the Cincinnati Reds in 2008 (17-6, 3.21 ERA, 196 innings) that saw him earn an All-Star selection and finish fourth in the voting for National League Rookie of the Year. But since then has undergone Tommy John surgery (2009), been suspended 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs (2010) and a low point came last season when he was released by the San Diego Padres in August.
The Pirates have an open spot in their starting rotation, after speculation Burnett would retire and his ultimate signing with the Philadelphia Phillies. Volquez will be in the mix for the No. 5 spot, and left-hander Jeff Locke looks like his most prominent competition right now. Locke was an All-Star in 2013 on the heels of a strong first half of the season (8-2 with 2.15 ERA in 18 starts-109 innings), but a bad second half (6.12 ERA over 12 starts) has kept him from being assured a spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation.
Volquez was remarkably inconsistent last season, with a 2.77 ERA in his nine wins and an 8.25 ERA in his 12 losses, and we can look no further than his BB/9 rate (5.0 in losses; 3.1 in wins) as the driving force of that disparity. Control has been the most prominent issue for Volquez throughout his career, but his BB/9 rate did fall below 5.0 (4.1) for the first time since 2008 last season. Time will tell if working with Searage will bring a resurgence for Volquez in 2014, but it can only help even if he never quite gets back to the level he showed as rookie.