THE Pirates haven’t had an ace on the pitching staff for more than a quarter century, not since Doug Drabek led the pitching staff from 1990-1992. Not coincidentally, Drabek, the team’s only other Cy Young award winner besides Vernon Law (1960), was the Bucco ace when the Pirates their only three division titles in the past 38 years.

There have been some good Pirates pitchers since Drabek, but no one has approached the status of ace.

Perhaps we are watching one develop in the arm of Trevor Williams.

Through Sunday, the 26-year-old right-hander had allowed just four runs in his last nine starts (54.2 ip) and posted the lowest ERA in the major leagues (0.66) since July 11. He entered Monday (a no decision)t with a streak of 17.2 consecutive scoreless innings pitched—the longest current streak in the National League and his second-longest of the season behind his 21.0 consecutive scoreless innings between July 11 and August 5.

Williams is the only pitcher in MLB this season to make nine starts of at least 5.0 innings without allowing a run, and he has been the starting pitcher in eight of Pittsburgh’s 14 shutouts this season. Williams’ 0.72 ERA following the All-Star break is also the lowest in both leagues among pitchers with at least 40.0 innings of work.

Over the last two seasons, Williams is second among all pitchers with a 2.30 ERA. Only Cleveland’s Corey Kluber’s 2.12 ERA is better.

Williams came to Pittsburgh after the 2015 season in what seemed to be a lopsided trade for the Pirates, who got Miami’s number six prospect and fourth-best pitching prospect for a who-he from Pittsburgh’s minor leagues who never was heard from. In reality, the trade was compensation for Pirate pitching coordinator Jim Benedict to become the Marlins’ vice president for pitching development.

However, Marlins pitchers remained mediocre at best, and Benedict was canned after two seasons in South Beach.

He joined the Cubs this year in much the same capacity: “Special Assistant to Baseball Operations” with a focus on resurrecting pitchers. But again he has failed to recreate the success he enjoyed with Searage in Pittsburgh.

And while the unusual player-for-a front-office-guy swap didn’t yield success for the Marlins, it has provided a huge boost for Pittsburgh, who has not exactly overwhelmed the big leagues with its once highly-regarded stable of pitching prospects who became pitching suspects (Dovydas Neverauskas, Tyler Glasnow, et al).

Yet it is interesting that when asked to rank his projected starting staff for 2019, manager Clint Hurdle refused to address the topic.

“I don’t know why they need to be seeded,” he said. “I don’t. But I do know men, at least the groups I’ve been in. They love to measure stuff.”

And maybe the reason for his hesitation to name a number one, number two, and so on is that Hurdle has never had a need to. More often than not, the skipper scurried to find at least three creditable guys to insert into the rotation.

Just two years ago, the starters were Jamison Taillon, Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jonathan Niese.

In 2012, the starters were Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstans, Eric Beddard, A.J. Burnett, and James MacDonald.

And before Hurdle arrived, 10 seasons ago, the starting staff was Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Phil Dumatrait. All of them a far cry from Bob Walk, Drabek, Zane Smith, Jon Smiley, and Randy Tomlin from those ‘90s teams.

And so with a starting staff that has been among the majors’ best since July, the Pirates can look forward to a sparkling starting rotation in 2019 which will include Williams, Taillon, Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, and Ivan Nova to be backed by a bullpen that could be among the best ever: Edgar Santana, Richard Rodriguez, and Kyle Crick in the latter innings; lefty Felipe Vasquez and righty Keone Kela to close the games; and Steven Brault and Nick Kingham as long men.

JIM SANKEY is a baseball columnist for The Allied News.