Two weeks ago we started talking about the upcoming decision involving Gerrit Cole. Eventually the Pirates could be in a situation where they have A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Locke healthy. The key word there is “could”, because Pirates starting pitchers have been getting injured every other week it seems.
If this happens, the Pirates will have a tough decision to make. The likely outcome won’t be popular either. They will have to choose between Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton for the fifth rotation spot, and I’m guessing the choice will be Morton.
The reason for that decision would have nothing to do with Super Two status. If Gerrit Cole stays up in the majors the rest of the year, he will have 111 days of service time. If he stays up full time in 2014 and 2015, he will end the 2015 season with two years and 111 days (expressed as 2.111). The projected cutoff for Super Two status this off-season is 2.119. That is the lowest it has been in the last five years, although that’s probably due to the new CBA making more players eligible for Super Two status.
The reason Cole is probably going to go down is because of depth. Charlie Morton doesn’t have options remaining. Jeanmar Gomez and James McDonald would be the other depth options for the rotation, and neither pitcher has options remaining. Gerrit Cole does have options remaining. That leaves two scenarios.
1. The Pirates option Cole, and he would be the first starter to come up if another injury occurred.
2. The Pirates keep Cole in the majors and send Morton to the bullpen (where Gomez and McDonald would already be).
The problem with scenario two is that you eliminate all of your starting pitching depth. In either scenario you would lose Gomez and McDonald to the bullpen, where neither would be stretched out. In scenario two you would lose Morton as well. You might point to Jeanmar Gomez earlier in the year as proof that someone can make the move from the bullpen to the rotation during the season. But Gomez was a special situation. Due to Jonathan Sanchez pitching so poorly, Gomez ended up pitching multiple innings each time Sanchez was on the mound. Here were his game logs before he entered the rotation.
April 14th: 2.1 IP, 39 pitches
April 21st: 2.1 IP, 46 pitches
April 26th: 4.1 IP, 67 pitches
May 1st: 4.0 IP, 79 pitches
May 1st was his first start taking over for Sanchez, and he was limited to four innings. Gomez didn’t go beyond five innings until his sixth start, despite some low pitch counts in the previous outings. That really taxed the bullpen, knowing they’d have to pitch at least four innings per start.
Fortunately the Pirates don’t have a guy like Sanchez in the rotation right now. That also means the Pirates won’t have a situation where a reliever will be going multiple innings every five days. So if a starter goes down, they will be calling on Brandon Cumpton as the only replacement, since none of the relievers will be stretched out.
A starter will go down. Anyone expecting the Pirates to finish the season with a rotation of Burnett/Wandy/Liriano/Locke and either Cole or Morton is ignoring the fact that we’re almost three months into the season and the Pirates have used 11 starters. The way things have been going, an injury could happen in the next week and there would be no either/or discussion about Cole and Morton because you’d need both of them.
The smart thing to do is to option Cole down and maintain your depth. With three months remaining in the season, depth is extremely important. The Pirates used 11 starters in the first three months. They’d only have Brandon Cumpton and a bunch of relievers backing up the rotation in the second three months of the season, unless they optioned Cole. I’m certain that Cole would return at some point this season, and if they didn’t need him that would be excellent, as it would mean they didn’t have any injuries, or any starters faltering.
This situation isn’t unique to the Pirates. The Arizona Diamondbacks are in first place in the NL West, and have the same situation going on with top prospect Tyler Skaggs. He came up earlier in the year for a spot start, then went down after pitching six shutout innings and striking out nine against the Texas Rangers. He came back up for two starts due to an injury, but was sent back down after giving up five runs in both starts he made. Even with good performance, the plan was to send him back down when Brandon McCarthy returned from the DL.
Talking about the rotation during the season is one thing. Talking about the rotation in the playoffs is another. The Pirates can send Cole down now, because their priority should be on depth, since they’ll need more than five starters the rest of the year. But on August 31st, Cole needs to be up, if he’s not already. Why August 31st? That’s the last day you can add a player to the 25-man roster and have him eligible for the post-season roster.
For the short-term, don’t be surprised if Cole goes down in a few weeks. It will have nothing to do with money or performance. It will have everything to do with maintaining depth. Anyone who says that’s not important is ignoring the fact that the Pirates are winning right now only because of their starting pitching depth during the first three months of the season.
Links and Notes
**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 10: More Stanton Talk and Should Polanco Be Called Up This Year?