The Indianapolis Indians are off to a 19-7 start this year, which is their best start in 54 years. The last time they started off this well was in 1959, when they went 22-7 to start the year. Minor league wins and losses don’t mean much. The main focus is developing players for the majors. In the Triple-A level, the focus is also on providing depth for the majors. Wins can be nice to see, since they suggest that something is going right. In this case, the thing that is going right is the pitching depth.
Indianapolis has seen their pitching depth depleted early in the year, in large part to the trickle down from the pitching problems in the majors. They have already sent Phil Irwin, Vin Mazzaro, and Bryan Morris up to the majors at times this year. Mazzaro is still in the majors. Irwin returned to Triple-A, but hasn’t pitched in a few weeks due to arm fatigue. Morris is the only pitcher who has thrown since his time in the majors. Adding to the pitching problems, the Indians saw Kyle McPherson go down early with an arm injury.
What the Indians have shown this year has been strong depth. Most of that depth has come from minor league free agents who were signed over the off-season. Those are guys who are probably best in Triple-A, but could emerge as sleeper relievers in the majors, with the hope that one breaks out and becomes a surprisingly strong middle reliever. There are also some legit prospects still at the level, both in the rotation and the back of the bullpen. Below is a breakdown of the pitchers in each category, and how they have been performing so far this year.
Last year the Indianapolis Indians opened with a rotation full of “prospects”. Not all of those guys were legit prospects. Brad Lincoln, for example, didn’t have prospect eligibility. The rotation of Lincoln, Kyle McPherson, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson looks like it is helping the Pirates in the long run. Lincoln was traded for Travis Snider, who has been excellent this year. Owens was one-third of the return for Wandy Rodriguez — another key player this season. Jeff Locke could be starting to figure things out in the major league rotation. Justin Wilson has been excellent in the Pirates’ bullpen.
This year the Pirates had some prospects in the rotation, but not to the degree as last year. The obvious prospect is Gerrit Cole, who could be up by mid-season, but has gotten off to a slow start. Cole has dealt with control issues, resulting from poor command. He has failed to make it past the fourth inning in three of his five starts this year, due to high single inning pitch counts. In the other two starts he has dealt with poor control problems, which have led to 15 walks in 23.1 innings this year. As I wrote last night, the Pirates can take their time with Cole, as some of the major league depth is starting to come back. There’s still a chance he could be ready by mid-season, but there’s certainly no need to rush him.
Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin were two other prospects, and both are injured. The injury to McPherson seems more serious, although there haven’t been updates on either player.
Finally, Andy Oliver was more of a reclamation project, added in an off-season trade from the Detroit Tigers. Oliver had dealt with poor control issues in the past, and while those control issues still exist (19 BB in 32.1 innings), he has found a way to be dominant with the poor control (3.34 ERA, 39 K).
The big difference between last year and the current situation is that last year the Pirates had guys who could come up early in the season. They just didn’t need many of those guys, as the first half rotation didn’t have many problems. This year the only guys who could have provided immediate help were Irwin and McPherson, and both are now injured. The Pirates happen to need immediate depth, although that will be solved in the coming weeks by the returns of Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton.
Even though they aren’t ready, Cole and Oliver have still been performing for Indianapolis. Oliver has a 3.34 ERA in six starts, and really only has one bad start. Cole has dealt with control, and has left several starts early, but his overall numbers have been strong, with a 2.31 ERA.
The other prospects on the team are a reminder of last year’s situation. The Pirates have three late inning relief prospects with Indianapolis. All three could provide help early in the season. The only problem is that the major league bullpen doesn’t really need help right now, and definitely won’t need help when Jose Contreras and Charlie Morton return in the next few weeks. That means you’ve got Bryan Morris, Vic Black, and Duke Welker dominating in Triple-A, with no place to go.
Morris made it to the majors briefly this year, and could be an option again if Jared Hughes continues to struggle. So far in Triple-A he has given up one run in 6.1 innings, with a 4:1 K/BB ratio. Morris has been splitting time with Vic Black as the closer, and has five saves, with Black recording six.
There is very little for Morris to work on at the Triple-A level. He’s to the point where he needs to be in the majors. That wasn’t the case for Black and Welker coming in to the year. Both had dealt with control problems, although both are doing a good job this year with those issues.
Black has a 2.93 ERA in 15.1 innings, with an incredible 24:7 K/BB ratio. The walks are probably too high, but Black has been dominant with the strikeouts, and has only given up nine hits. He’s given up five earned runs on the year, and four of those have come in his second inning of work in multi-inning appearances. So as a one inning guy, he has been dominant.
Welker has thrown 13 innings without an earned run, giving up just two hits in that span. He’s also dominating with a 17:5 K/BB ratio. Again, the walks might be a little high, but he’s striking out more than a batter an inning, and not allowing many hits. Black and Welker both feature upper 90s fastballs and breaking pitches which could be considered plus offerings. Black’s slider is a mid-80s pitch with a lot of movement, while Welker throws an upper-80s hard slider.
The Minor League Free Agents
The prospects were being counted on from the start of the year. The surprise this season has been the minor league free agents. They are the reason Indianapolis hasn’t struggled despite losing McPherson and Irwin, having Cole leave early in three starts, and sending a few guys up to the majors. The Indians have been getting strong performances this year from Kris Johnson, Brooks Brown, Kyle Waldrop, Ryan Reid, Mike Zagurski, and Vin Mazzaro, who were all minor league free agents over the off-season.
Kris Johnson - He is the only player from the group who played in the Pirates’ organization last year. Johnson had a great off-season in the Dominican Winter League, and the Pirates put him in the rotation to stretch him out. So far he has a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 innings, with a 15:10 K/BB ratio. Johnson’s upside is probably more of a left-handed reliever who can pitch multiple innings.
Brooks Brown - Brown has stepped up in the last week to take a few starts in the rotation with Phil Irwin down. So far this year he has a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings, with a 16:5 K/BB ratio. He’s a sinkerball pitcher, which the Pirates seem to love. So far that has translated to a 1.53 GO/AO ratio this year. He throws his sinker in the 88-92 MPH range, and pairs that with a slider that can be a plus pitch at times. That combo makes him a better bullpen option, especially since his changeup is fringy.
Kyle Waldrop - Here is another sinkerball pitcher, only to the extreme. Waldrop has posted ground ball rates of 70% or higher in recent years. So far this year he has a 2.25 ERA in 16 innings, with a 14:2 K/BB ratio and a 2.67 GO/AO ratio. He has stepped up with two big starts after the absence of Irwin and McPherson, throwing 6.2 shutout innings in his first start, and giving up four runs but striking out eight in six innings in the second start.
Ryan Reid - He had an excellent Spring Training, and has been dominant in Triple-A with a 0.60 ERA in 15 innings, along with a 17:4 K/BB ratio. Reid has always posted strong numbers in the minors, with a 9.0 K/9 and a 3.2 BB/9 last year in Triple-A. He has been versatile this year, throwing multi-inning outings, as well as working in middle relief and late in games.
Mike Zagurski - The Pirates certainly don’t have a shortage of left-handed options, and Zagurski has emerged as another candidate. He has a 1.74 ERA in 10.1 innings, with a 15:2 K/BB ratio. That follows a strong Spring Training where he was one of the last to be cut. Zagurski throws an 89-92 MPH fastball and a plus slider, which has led to the strong strikeout rate. His problems in the past have been his walk rate, so the low walk total this year is encouraging.
Vin Mazzaro - He’s currently in the majors, but before Mazzaro was promoted he had thrown seven shutout innings in Indianapolis, with a 9:1 K/BB ratio. Most of that came when he threw four shutout innings and struck out six on April 6th. He’s also the exception to this list, as Mazzaro was acquired in a minor trade with Kansas City, after being DFAd. He was later outrighted to Triple-A after clearing waivers.
Combined - This group of pitchers has combined for a 1.60 ERA and an 0.98 WHIP over 90 innings this year, along with an 8.6 K/9 and a 2.4 BB/9 ratio.
The key thing to consider with all of these guys is that they have been throwing in Triple-A for several years now. They are also pitching out of the bullpen, and we’re dealing with small sample sizes. So you can only take so much from the ERAs. The bigger thing to focus on when considering whether they can help in the majors is their stuff, and their K/BB ratios. Fortunately the Pirates don’t really need any of these guys right away. But it’s inevitable that the Pirates will need some of them throughout the year, and it’s good to see a group of candidates all putting up strong numbers in Triple-A for when those times come.