I was asked this morning on Twitter how the pitching staff would look on July 1st. The recent starts by Jeff Locke, the eventual returns of Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, and the possibility of Gerrit Cole arriving mid-season make that an impossible question to answer. That’s especially true when you consider that anything could happen between now and then. Pitchers could get injured, they could stop performing well, or in a “this is a good problem to have” worst-case scenario, everyone will be performing and the Pirates will have more pitchers than spots.
Before even thinking about the long-term moves with this pitching staff, you’d have to think about the short-term moves. Even those are hard to predict, although it’s much easier looking ahead two weeks than it is looking ahead two months. Here are those short-term moves, and how they could play out.
At some point this week, Jose Contreras will join the Pirates bullpen. They will need to clear a 25-man and a 40-man spot for him. The candidate to go would be Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, and Jonathan Sanchez. Considering that Gomez is starting on Wednesday, I’d say he’s higher on the depth chart than Mazzaro or Sanchez.
Contreras has been filthy with his fork ball during his minor league rehab appearances. He could emerge as a strong 7th inning option for the Pirates, giving them a great complement to Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli (and giving a great alternative to Melancon if he needs a night off).
It probably won’t matter whether it’s Mazzaro or Sanchez who goes.
Liriano is set to join the Pirates on May 10th. The Pirates can arrange the rotation so that Jeanmar Gomez only has to make one start in the rotation before Liriano returns. Either way, Gomez would return to the bullpen, and the Pirates would have to make a 25-man move from the bullpen to make room for Liriano.
My guess is that whichever player from Mazzaro or Sanchez is left on the roster will go for Liriano. Gomez should be safe for the short-term.
Morton should return at some point in mid-May. He just finished throwing a six inning, 70 pitch rehab start with Altoona. If he’s on the same schedule as Francisco Liriano, that would give him about three more starts before returning to the Pirates.
Where Morton ends up pitching will probably depend on Jeff Locke. If Locke continues throwing more like he has in the last two starts, and less like he has in his first three starts, he’ll make for a tough decision. James McDonald isn’t exactly a guarantee to stick in the rotation. He’s been much better in his last two starts, but he’s been too inconsistent this year and hasn’t guaranteed his spot in the rotation.
If either pitcher struggles, the Pirates could turn to Morton as a replacement. If they both continue what they’ve been doing over the last two outings, Morton would probably be forced to the bullpen in long relief. Either way, Gomez would be forced off the roster by this point, assuming there would be no other injuries that would allow him to stick around.
The Long-Term Rotation
Looking two months ahead, the rotation looks like it will have a lot of depth. The Pirates will have Charlie Morton available as a replacement starter in the event of an injury or a struggling pitcher. Jeff Karstens hasn’t started his rehab work yet, but should be starting that process soon. The Pirates could choose to build him up as a starter, or they could get him back quicker as a reliever who can go multiple innings. If they go the starter route, that would only add depth.
The big question is when, or if, Gerrit Cole arrives this summer. Cole hasn’t exactly been lighting it up this year in Triple-A. Sure, he has a 2.31 ERA on the season. However, he also has only thrown 23.1 innings in five starts (averaging under 5 innings per start), and has 15 walks in those 23.1 innings. In three of his starts he has been removed in the fourth inning or earlier due to a high single inning pitch count. Even in his best start, which came on Saturday, he walked four in seven innings.
The rotation depth in the majors means the Pirates don’t have to rush Cole. He’s got the potential to be a number one starter in the majors, but right now he’s not dominating Triple-A, which means he’s not going to come close to dominating the majors. That will change with time, and the Pirates have plenty of time as long as the rotation holds up.
A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have their spots locked down. Francisco Liriano pretty much has a spot locked down when he returns, assuming he doesn’t return as the pitcher we’ve seen over the last two seasons. James McDonald and Jeff Locke need to show more of what we’ve seen in their recent starts in order to secure a rotation spot. If someone struggles or gets injured, Charlie Morton could step in.
That’s not to say there’s no way Gerrit Cole makes it to the majors this year. If he’s ready, he’d probably be an upgrade over someone like Locke, even if Locke was playing up to his strong number four upside. Cole isn’t ready now, which is the most important thing.
It’s probably best to not think too long about what will happen with the rotation in two months. It was only a month ago that the Pirates had strong rotation depth. Then Kyle McPherson went down with an elbow injury, Phil Irwin went down with arm fatigue, Gerrit Cole struggled with his control, Jonathan Sanchez imploded, and before you know it, Jeanmar Gomez is in the rotation. Fortunately, the depth will be built back up in the next few weeks. But if we’ve learned anything from the first month of the season, that depth can quickly disappear. Odds are that the Pirates will eventually have a spot open up for Cole when he’s ready. And if the worst case is that they have too many good starters in the rotation when Cole is ready, then that’s not really a problem at all.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.
**Be sure to check out the new podcast: P3 Episode 1: The Bullpen, Snider, and a Nick Kingham Interview.