On Sunday I put together some thoughts about what we can expect to see come Spring Training for the fielders. This wasn’t a prediction piece as much as a look at the landscape as it sits, along with identifying areas where the Pirates should be looking outside to fill. Give that a read if you’re interested.
This one is going to do the same for the pitching staff.
Admittedly, this is a tougher set of areas to look at. If you have followed my work at all you’ve seen me constantly say for forecasting the window follow the pitching. Well, Sunday’s piece and this one combined I think will show why I feel that way, the hitting is in my mind ahead of the pitching, and rather significantly.
The other thing with pitching that we often forget, especially those of us who can’t be bothered to look past WAR numbers, is that young pitchers get better.
I’m going to list some names that should probably be a factor as we ramp up in the Spring, but it also doesn’t take deep study to see they’re going to have to go shopping.
Let’s start with two guys I think are at least have a solid chance to be dealt. Chad Kuhl is entering his last year of arbitration, Steven Brault will have 2 more. Now, Chad has spent a ton of time on the IL in his career, he has really good stuff, and he’s struggled to harness it. They can simply offer him arbitration and send him into his last year in Pittsburgh or they could potentially buy themselves time and offer him a couple years.
I could argue that both ways. First, what’s to say he doesn’t just get hurt again, or that he ever reaches his potential? On the other hand, as we dive in here we’ll see he is probably not going to block anyone either.
Brault is another animal. He has reached his potential, possibly even exceeded it a bit. They have control of him for 2 more years and reality is he’ll either be moved or extended within the next year. He’s a good guy to consider extending, and for a while, here’s why, because he can easily hold his value in the bullpen when he is eventually overtaken by other pitchers in the rotation.
Regardless, here are your two internal veterans. Moving either of them will only increase the number of pitchers you have to turn around and bring in. If I’m the Pirates, I weigh the potential value returned with the value of actually having them here. I’d recommend both stay put and head into Spring prepared to be members of the staff.
JT Brubaker is 27 years old. That’s not exactly young for a rookie, but it also doesn’t tell his entire story. He was arguably ahead of Mitch Keller before suffering a series of injuries and made an unexpected impact in 2020 and early 2021. He’s currently being babied and the reason is how little he’s thrown 75 total innings in 2019-20 and as we sit here in early August of 2021 he’s at 107.1. The most he’s ever thrown in his professional career was 2018 154 total. He’s shown signs of wearing down and they’re trying to mitigate it. I still think JT is a lock to be in the rotation next year. He’s still on pre-arbitration and next year he’ll bring with him the lessons he learned in 2021.
You’ll note I’m not calling anyone ‘ace’ or numbering them as a ‘3’, I don’t like doing that for so many reasons. Also, I don’t see this club changing the way they handle pitchers all that much. In other words, I’m not going to bother numbering guys 1-5 when I think they’ll use 10-11.
Some of you aren’t going to want to hear this, but Mitch Keller is going to get every opportunity to grab a spot again. He has to, and we should stress, that doesn’t mean he’ll earn it. Unless this club brings in 3 or 4 guys in free agency Keller is likely to come out of Spring as a starter.
Here is my last lock, Bryse Wilson. He’s started well in his Pirates career and as young as he is, the Braves have given him all the yo yo treatment he’s going to get. They brought him here to be a starter, and he’ll be given every opportunity.
OK, those are the locks barring moves. I’m assuming a 5 man rotation, but 6 wouldn’t shock me.
So let’s talk about who else is in contention to get starts.
Wil Crowe, and I could have easily added him to the picture under locks. He’s done some very good things, he’s done some very bad things. He was acquired as a guy who had a shot to start but an ability to jump into the bullpen too. If this squad stays healthy, that may very well be where he ends up.
Miguel Yajure got a cup of coffee this season and injury prevented him getting a longer look. In fact Miguel being injured caused the quick jump up of Max Kranick. Yajure has the most evolved breaking stuff in the entire organization and he’ll probably force the Pirates to make a tough call. Think of him as a guy who might outperform everyone in Spring and make most of the fanbase scream when he’s asked to start in AAA again. I should stress, this is still assuming no moves are made to clear space.
Chase De Jong will probably get another look but he also has no options. I can’t look at that list I just wrote up and find room for him in the rotation, but this is about who will have an opportunity, not a list of locks.
Cody Ponce is another guy that will get a look, but cold just as easily wind up in the pen.
Three more flyers because I see no way they make it out of Spring but they’ll be in the next wave we look to, which is more than we could really say this season existed.
Roansy Contreras, Omar Cruz and the injured Cody Bolton will all get a look and I believe make up 3 of the 6 starting spots in AAA. Bolton has been forgotten as he’s missed most of the season to injury, but he remains the Pirates number 10 prospect even as they’ve continually brought in guys to shuffle that list.
The highest pedigree talent on the mound rests in Greensboro and Bradenton, those players will start to shift that to Greensboro and Altoona. Next season expect players like Contreras, Cruz, Bolton and potentially Yajure, Crowe, or even Keller to wind up in AAA. Which will look a lot better than Dillon Peters, Max Kranick, Shelby Miller, Steven Wright, James Marvel and Tanner Anderson.
That’s tangible evolution. And next year when they need a starter, it’s going to be someone who has a real chance to be here when the team wins.
All that being said, I think they go get a veteran or two. If they trade Brault or Kuhl, this statement better be a lock. In fact, the reality that the rotation get’s way too young way too fast by moving both those guys might very well be the reason they keep both.
Let’s start here, just about anyone I mentioned in the starter section could wind up in the bullpen. So pardon me if I don’t repeat them all. Just keep that in the back of your head because it’s a very real probability that pitchers from that mix form at least the bottom half of this mix.
David Bednar will be the closer, I just don’t see any way around it and honestly, I don’t really want to.
Sam Howard will make the list and enter as the top lefty available out there.
Nick Mears will get a good long look the rest of this season, and I know for a fact they like his stuff. Chris Stratton will likely return but he could also find himself on the block. What he does could be done by someone like Ponce so it might not be a bad idea to move on from him if a nice package was offered.
Duane Underwood Jr. will be back. Know how I know? Because they haven’t cut him. He’s had good stretches, and god awful stretches. He too could find his spot eaten up by starters that don’t make the rotation. Again, this is about who’s in the mix, not who’ll make it.
Kyle Keller will probably return. They love his fastball, we can’t stand that he keeps getting leverage situations.
Hunter Stratton, Joe Jacques, Blake Weiman and Shea Spitzbarth should all get a look and then I have a couple more I’d look for. Yerry De Los Santos, Steven Jennings and Travis MacGregor.
The moral of the story with the pen, it’s going to be largely constructed from overflow starters and youngsters. I see zero chance they head into Spring without bringing in at least 2 or 3 more established options. Especially the way this team has managed the pitching staff, if they don’t beef up the bullpen, all those options to start won’t matter a lick.
At some point, maybe toward the end of the season we might see Blake Cederlind working his way back from TJ, but I wouldn’t count on him for anything more than finishing his recovery in 2022.
I’d tell you I don’t like the picture I’ve painted for this bullpen if you asked me, but I’d also remind you to look at the starters I listed, because I truly think there is more talent there than we think. I’d also tell you moving a starting prospect through the system and feeling they’re ready for the bullpen is a much lower hurdle than believing they can work through a lineup 2 or 3 times.
So here’s my early pitching staff. WAY EARLY, don’t beat me up too bad, and remember I want them to bring in more options.
SP: Brault, Kuhl, Wilson, Brubaker, Keller/Yajure
BP: Crowe, Ponce, De Jong, Underwood Jr. Bednar, Stratton, Howard, Mears, Spitzbarth
Is this better than 2021? Eh, maybe by the end of 2022 we’ll feel that way. Especially if Roansy, Bolton and Yajure develop. And yes, I really do think Mitch Keller ultimately decides whether he or Yajure make the opening day roster.