First Pitch: A Look at the Short-Term and Long-Term Pitching Moves

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.

Jose Contreras

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.

Francisco Liriano should return to the rotation in less than two weeks.

Francisco Liriano should return to the rotation in less than two weeks.

Francisco Liriano

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.

Charlie Morton

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.

Prospects

**Top Performers: Nick Kingham’s 13 Strikeouts is the Best Start of the Year.

**Top Performers: Jose Osuna’s Bat is Starting to Come Alive.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Week Eleven Recap, Gray To The Forefront?.

**Prospect Watch: Stetson Allie Homers Twice; Strong Starts From Pimentel, Glasnow, Oliver.

**Minor League Schedule: 4/30/13.

Pirates

**Is Jeff Locke Starting to Figure Things Out?

**Russell Martin Named the NL Player of the Week.

**Jonathan Sanchez Moved to the Bullpen; Jeanmar Gomez Will Start Wednesday.

**A Home Run Derby Breaks Out as the Pirates Fall to Brewers 10-4.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    On Cole, you said “That will change with time, and the Pirates have plenty of time as long as the rotation holds up.”

    Let’s hope. He needs to MAKE us bring him up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    Any updates on Irwin and McFearsome?

    • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

      KMac was just updated Sunday – he still has pain in his elbow and will be shut down for an extended period of time. This type of thing rarely ends without TJ surgery.

      Irwin has the proverbial “dead arm”.

  • steve19981

    If Hughes is still mediocre, I could see the Pirates using one of his three options to send him down when Morton is ready. I think he will be fine in the long run, but personally, I like Gomez and Mazzaro better than him at the moment.

  • maguro

    “It probably won’t matter whether it’s Mazzaro or Sanchez who goes.”

    Really? I think Mazzaro has looked kind of decent, whereas Sanchez has been unspeakably horrible. How could this decision be a close call in any way? They have to drop Sanchez, without a doubt.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Either way, they’re both probably gone in a week. That’s why it doesn’t matter.

      • maguro

        I’m not so sure Hughes doesn’t get optioned to Indy once Morton is ready. Has he really been better than Mazzaro this year?

      • maguro

        I guess you have to account for Contreras as well, so yeah, Mazzaro is probably a goner.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    So fully stocked, the Bucs would have a rotation of Burnett Wandy JMac Liriano and Locke; bullpen of Grilli Melancon Contreras Watson Wilson Morton and Karstens; and reinforcements at Indy in Oliver and Cole for the rotation, Morris and Black for the bullpen.

    Who’s missing Vin Mazzaro?

  • joe g.

    I think Morton is going to start when he’s ready. He is being prepared to start. It will be AJ, Wandy, Morton, Liriano, Locke/McDonald. The latter two battling for #5. Whoever loses goes to the pen as a long reliever. Hurdle is losing patience with JMac – wants to see more consistency from him. Locke is making a positive move, so I’m betting on him to win that spot. Karstens will be a long man/ spot starter.