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.
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.
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.
**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.