Now that rosters have expanded, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot of starting options. The problem is that they only have three rotation spots that look to be locked down at the moment.
Francisco Liriano has been fantastic this year, with the occasional bad start mixed in. The strange thing about Liriano is that he’s lights out when the Pirates are on a losing streak heading into his start, but he struggles when the Pirates are on a winning streak. That said, Liriano is no concern.
A.J. Burnett has had some rough starts in the last month, but his rotation spot is safe. Any disappointment with him comes from the fact that he’s expected to be a top of the rotation pitcher at this point. In August he had three starts that were top of the rotation quality, and three starts that…weren’t top of the rotation quality. But the Pirates won’t be replacing Burnett because of a few bad starts, nor should they.
Number three on the list has been Charlie Morton, who looks to wrap up win number 82 tomorrow against the Cardinals (and put the Pirates back in first place). Morton has been outstanding in the last month, and is easily on the hottest run of any starter on the staff right now.
Beyond those three, the Pirates have some question marks.
First there is Jeff Locke, who continues to struggle in the second half. Not only has Locke seen his lucky strand rate reverse, but he has also seen his walk rate increase. That has been a big problem in his last few starts, and was a bigger problem tonight, despite an extended break between starts.
Then there’s Gerrit Cole. I wrote earlier this week about how Cole has the second best xFIP in the second half. The numbers don’t exactly reflect that, as Cole has a 3.79 ERA, compared to his xFIP of 3.07. He has been unlucky in the second half, and because of that, his improvements have been quiet. But Cole is also over his 2012 innings totals, so he might be a candidate to start wearing down.
The Pirates have some options with rosters expanding. Brandon Cumpton just threw eight innings in the Triple-A playoffs this week, giving up two runs. He had two strong outings in his last three starts of the regular season. He’s over his 2012 innings totals, so he might also wear down. But Cumpton has pitched well in his four starts with the Pirates this year.
Stolmy Pimentel made his debut earlier this week, throwing a good first inning, then getting a few unlucky breaks in the second. Pimentel was one of the best starters in Indianapolis this year, and has more upside than Cumpton. If the Pirates needed him for multiple innings, he could definitely fill that role, with a good chance to fill it with good production.
Kris Johnson had great numbers in Triple-A, and a great debut. However, he profiles more as a third lefty out of the bullpen than a top starting option.
Jeanmar Gomez has made some starts this year, but he’s limited to just 50 pitches at this point, and wouldn’t be a true starting option.
Then there’s Wandy Rodriguez. If healthy, he would be the ideal person to replace Jeff Locke in the rotation right now, with Locke struggling. The problem is that Rodriguez has only made one rehab start, going three innings. He’s not stretched out, and with West Virginia getting eliminated tonight, Rodriguez might not have a shot at another rehab start. Even if he pitched for Jamestown (assuming they win tomorrow and advance), he’d only have enough time for one more rehab start, putting him at four innings. He’d still need about 2-3 more at the least.
The Pirates could bring Rodriguez back soon with Indianapolis and West Virginia done with their playoff runs. They will want to be careful with his usage in the process. Rodriguez is almost a lock to exercise his player option, and the last thing the Pirates need to do is rush him back and risk an injury that could make the $7.5 M owed to him next year dead payroll.
The Pirates might need to find someone to replace Locke, as he continues to struggle even after a break. Wandy Rodriguez would be the best option, but he’s not stretched out, and doesn’t have the opportunities to make enough rehab starts. So what’s the solution?
In the minors, especially in the lower levels, teams will piggyback starters to get more pitchers more innings. Piggybacking means that one starter pitches the first five innings, then the next starter comes in and pitches the final four innings. The second pitcher treats his innings as if he were making a start, and as if the sixth inning was the first inning.
Before he could be stretched out as a starter, Rodriguez would need to go through the following process in his rehab:
Start #2: 4 IP or 65 pitches, whichever comes first
Start #3: 5 IP / 80 pitches
Start #4: 6 IP / 90 pitches
Start #5: 6+ IP / 100 pitches
The Pirates might be able to get away with three more rehab starts with Rodriguez before he’s fully stretched out. It just depends on how the arm feels. So here’s a question: why not rehab in the majors?
The Pirates have a ton of starting pitching options in the majors, including all of the starters above. If Rodriguez were to take over for Jeff Locke in his next start, he would be limited to four innings and 65 pitches. Pre-September that would be an issue. But when you’ve got Cumpton, Pimentel, Johnson, or Gomez to take over for 3-5 more innings after Rodriguez is done, this becomes less of an issue.
The Pirates should consider piggybacking Rodriguez the rest of the way. If they took this approach, Rodriguez would be under the following “rehab” schedule:
9/12: 4 IP / 65 pitches
9/17: 5 IP / 80 pitches
9/22: 6 IP / 90 pitches
9/28: 6+ IP / 100 pitches
This schedule would get him fully stretched out for the playoffs. You’d really only need a piggyback starter for his first start, since he would be limited to four innings. You would probably need a long reliever for the second start, since he’d be leaving after a maximum of five innings. It’s also possible that Rodriguez has some rust and has to leave early. But it’s September and the Pirates have a roster full of pitching options.
By the third and fourth starts, Rodriguez would be fully stretched out. Depending on the performance, that would get him ready to be able to make a start in the playoffs, although he’d probably be the fourth starter with Charlie Morton doing so well.
What’s the downside to all of this? Jeff Locke continues to struggle, so it’s not like Rodriguez would be replacing someone who is providing strong production in the rotation. The other options to replace Locke don’t have the upside Rodriguez has. Also, if Cole starts slowing down with his innings, the Pirates will need one of the above starters. The best options are Pimentel and Cumpton, who are both over their 2012 innings totals as well.
In short, there is no downside, except that you would take an unconventional approach with starting pitchers in the majors. The upside could be big, as Rodriguez has the chance to be the best starter of the above group, and could be ready for the post-season by taking the piggybacking/rehab approach. If he does struggle, it wouldn’t cost the Pirates much ground since they’re already seeing Locke struggle during his starts. Stretching Rodriguez out in the majors might be the best option for this pitching staff right now.
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