First Pitch: Who Could Step Into the Rotation if Wandy Goes on the DL?

At the start of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked to have a great situation at the top of their rotation. A.J. Burnett had made 31+ starts each year since 2008. Wandy Rodriguez had made 30+ starts each year since 2009. They looked like guys who could give the Pirates a full seasons worth of starts, while potentially putting up 200 innings each.

Rodriguez left tonight’s game with tightness in his left hamstring in the third inning. It’s unknown how serious the injury is, or whether he will need a trip to the disabled list, since the injury will be reevaluated tomorrow. The Pirates do have some options if Rodriguez does miss some time. That doesn’t mean those options will replicate the numbers Rodriguez was capable of, but it does mean they won’t be relying on Jeanmar Gomez to step into the rotation. Here is a breakdown of each available starter.

Non-Options

Gerrit Cole - The obvious name that will come up is Gerrit Cole. He’s the top prospect in the system, and has the upside of a number one starter. The problem is that Cole isn’t there yet. He began his 2013 season on a strong note, throwing three shutout innings. He gave up three runs in the fourth inning, and was removed when the inning was completed. That’s only one start, but Cole hasn’t shown that he’s ready to move beyond Triple-A. He had a good debut with Indianapolis last year, then was bounced from his second start with the Indians after giving up eight earned runs in two innings. Cole needs more time in Triple-A, and not for service time or Super Two reasons. The idea of skipping pitchers over a level is generally a bad one. Sure, there are success stories, but there are also tons of talented pitching prospects who have seen their careers derailed after being rushed through the minors. The Pirates can’t afford to do that with Cole.

Andy Oliver - Right now he matches up with Rodriguez, but he needs more time in Triple-A to fix his control.

Kris Johnson - He had a great off-season in the Dominican Winter League. His first start of the year with Indianapolis was also a good one. But that’s not enough to launch him over McPherson or Irwin. He needs more starts to show that the DWL performance wasn’t just a fluke.

Injured Pitchers - Currently none of the injured starters are ready to join the Pirates. Charlie Morton threw two innings in an extended Spring Training game today. Jeff Karstens doesn’t have enough work to make a full start. Francisco Liriano is in the same boat. Plus, all of those guys would be skipping their rehab work in the minors.

The Candidates

Thursday's start could be a try out for Kyle McPherson.

Thursday’s start could be a try out for Kyle McPherson.

Kyle McPherson - The final rotation battle came down to Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. McPherson didn’t have a good debut, leaving after giving up three runs in three innings. Unlike Cole, McPherson has some success in the upper levels. It’s limited, but he had three strong starts with Indianapolis last year, and 26 innings in the majors. Neal Huntington talked about McPherson after he was sent down, and said the club would be comfortable going with him early in the season if they needed a starter or a reliever. I doubt the first start from McPherson would have changed that.

Phil Irwin - He threw six innings tonight, giving up one run and striking out five. Irwin had great numbers in Triple-A last year, and looked good in Spring Training. McPherson has more upside, and might be higher on the depth chart. Looking at the Organizational Probable Pitching Chart, Irwin would be throwing on six days rest when Rodriguez is due up next. However, with the off-day on Thursday, the Pirates could move James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez up, which would put Rodriguez’s next start on the same day as Kyle McPherson. The best part about this is that McPherson starts on Thursday, which means the Pirates could audition him for the role. If he doesn’t look ready, they could opt for Irwin. If McPherson does look ready, they’d have enough time to adjust the rotation.

Justin Wilson/Jeanmar Gomez - If the injury isn’t serious, the Pirates could opt to push Rodriguez’s start back, and use a combination of Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez in relief. Neither pitcher is stretched out to make a full start, but both could combine for 6-7 innings. The downside to this is that you can’t use either pitcher for a few games before or a few games after their starts. That would really deplete the bullpen, and might end up forcing a callup anyway, which is what this move would try to avoid.

If Rodriguez does miss time, it seems the best bet would be giving McPherson an audition on Thursday. If he pitches well, push Wandy’s next start back two days to line him up with McPherson. Then give McPherson the job until Rodriguez is ready to return. If McPherson has the same problems that he did in his first start of the year, the Pirates should consider Phil Irwin on six day’s rest.

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. Get them both to use throughout the 2013 season.

**Prospect Watch: Glasnow Has Strong Debut, Allie Homers Again.

**Pirates Win 5-3, Wandy Rodriguez Suffers Hamstring Tightness.

**Last year at the end of the year I started a weekly recap looking at the top hitters and pitchers from the previous week. That returned this week with the “Top Performers” links below.

**Top Performers: Jacob Stallings Shows Some Offense to Pair With His Strong Defense.

**Top Performers: Great Pirates Debuts by Andy Oliver and Stolmy Pimentel.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Week Eight Recap.

**Minor League Schedule: 4/9/13.

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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  • bucco4life

    Let me try to understand this. They moved Justin Wilson to the pen because he had control problems and then brought in 3 leftys with even more control problems in Liriano, Sanchez and Oliver. Haven’t seen much of Oliver, but I’d take Wilson over the other two and Locke for that matter. Locke looks like another Zach Duke to me. Way too hittable.This FO f’ng baffles me

    • Y2JGQ2

      You make an EXCELLENT point. I guess the success in Liriano and Sanchez to win despite that control is what is making the difference here. Most likely Oliver will be in the same boat as Wilson

  • Sandoz

    Locke could definitely turn out to be a Zach Duke. But he could also turn out to be a Paul Maholm.

    Speaking of Paul. I was watching some highlights from tonight. Did he change his fastball? I don’t remember it having so much armside run.

    He appears to be worth that 9 mil we didn’t want to give him.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

      then why isnt Paul making $9MM with the Braves?

      • Sandoz

        The Pirates would have been crazy to give him that kind of money at that time. They made the right decision.

        But I think he is gonna have a good year and may fetch that price on the market when his contract is up in 2 years. He’s the type of pitcher that could stay pretty good into his mid 30s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mike.Adamson75 Mike Adamson

    I’ve been asking all Spring why Justin Wilson wasn’t considered for a spot in the rotation. He looks like his stuff is better than Locke or McPherson.

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

    They won’t need Wandy until the 16th thanks to the off day Thursday. All the reports around town say this is very minor and he wanted to stay in the game last night. Most likely much to do about nothing, knock on wood.

    • emjayinTN

      j: Exactly the case because of the off day Thursday. Watching last night, he did not pull the hamstring but it was causing some discomfort. He walked and trotted and threw a few pitches and I thought he was staying in but they made the right decision not to gamble with the health of a guy who gets you 200+ innings a year. I think Wandy will be ready by the 16th and he can stay in that spot in the Rotation until the beginning of May when the Bucs have 2 off days in the first 6 days of May. At that point they can get back into the regular rotation. Wilson threw 35 pitches over 3 innings and did very well, and who is to say that Oliver will not be able to come in and give us 3 or 4 innings – does he have options to come up and go back down?

  • leadoff

    Your answer is control, he gets very wild at times. I think the Pirates would like him to be a starter, he has had his chances, even last night he pitched 3 innings and the 3rd inning he was starting to slow down.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I don’t even really think its control that Tim focuses on so often with Wilson. To me, it seems that there is such a difference in his stuff between starting and relieving, that he is much more valuable out of the pen, that 95-97 fastball becomes 91-94 and even he said as much. He lets it go more out of the pen and they haven’t found a way for him to keep that velocity in starts for more than a few innings, and then his control starts to sag because he knows he isn’t throwing as hard and is trying to place his pitches more, and it just becomes a rocky road from there

  • leadoff

    IMO, they won’t need to worry about bringing anyone up to replace Wandy for a while. He will throw a side session before his next start I am fairly sure, they will be able to tell then how he is.

  • atniup

    Lock can throw more at you than Wilson, IMO. You can argue that Wilson has better “stuff,” but Locke is better at changing speeds and has more options, in terms of pitches.

    I don’t think Locke is as hittable as he looked. He left some pitches up, but that is control related. Zach Duke was hittable, at times, even when he was in control of his pitches.

    McPherson isn’t right, he’s hurt or something. I’d like to see them give Irwin a start, but we’ll see.