Cole needs to pitch like a No. 1 guy

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — You can slice and dice the Pirates’ 2017 outlook countless ways, but it all comes down to this: they need a rebound season from Gerrit Cole.

More than anything else, that will determine whether they recover from the 20-game decline they experienced last season.

Starting pitching is still the most important factor in determining how much success a team will have. The Pirates’ rotation was in a state of chaos throughout 2016, mostly because the Nos. 1 and 2 starters, Cole and Francisco Liriano, failed terribly.

Cole was slow to start spring training because of a nagging injury, the first in a series that would bother him during the year. From there, bad habits developed, confidence diminished, and Cole had the first significant adversity in his career.

When it was done, his record had declined from 19-8 to 7-10, his earned run average rose by 1.28 and his WHIP increased from 1.098 to 1.440. After giving the Pirates 208 innings in 2015, he pitched just 116 innings last year.

Won-lost record is not the best indicator of a pitcher’s work, but with 12 fewer wins and two more losses, Cole had a 14-game swing to the bad side. The Pirates were 20 games worse in 2016.

He actually won fewer games than the much-maligned (and now departed) Jeff Locke (9) and Jon Niese (8).

It was a terrible year for the starting staff, and it started with Cole.

He’s the only one of the five original 2016 starters to return to the rotation this season. The Pirates need him.

A lot of things went wrong last year, but none was as costly as the failure of the top two starters. Liriano has since been banished to Toronto, with two prospects sacrificed for the relief of having his $14 million salary subtracted from this year’s payroll.

The Pirates’ rotation this year is long on promise, but short on accomplishment. Before last season’s impressive 11-game audition, Ivan Nova was mostly a so-so pitcher. Is he the effective strike thrower he was after he came to the Pirates, or did they get fooled by a guy the Yankees were willing to discard?

Jameson Taillon impressed with his stuff and his poise, but his major league experience starts and ends with the 104 innings he pitched last year. Chad Kuhl, the No. 4 starter, has even less of a track record. The fifth spot is wide open.

The closest to a sure thing is Cole. He can’t have a repeat of 2016 if the Pirates are to return to a winning season this year.

Making moves

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford did what he had to do at the trading deadline, and did it within the restrictions that apply.

The Penguins don’t have a lot of room under the salary cap, so deals almost always have to be equitable in terms of the salary leaving and that being added. He was able to pick up two very veteran defensemen (Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit) along with one who might have a future in Frank Corrado.

The price was minimal. He gave up some draft choices (including a second rounder) but there’s a chance those can be regained in future deals. Eric Fehr, who had fallen on the depth chart, was sacrificed.

The Penguins didn’t need a chemistry-altering jolt, and they didn’t want to head into the playoffs without having Marc-Andre Fleury as goaltending insurance.

There will be bigger changes in the offseason, when some free agent issues have to be confronted. For now, the focus is solely and correctly short term — trying to repeat last year’s championship run

In control

Antonio Brown has a son named Autonomy.

Even within the context of having four “A” named sons, that’s still unusual.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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