First Pitch: How the Pirates Could Stretch Wandy Rodriguez Out in the Majors

Wandy Rodriguez Pirates

Stretching Wandy Rodriguez out in the majors would be unconventional, but might be the best option. (Photo by: David Hague)

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?

Piggybacking.

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.

Links and Notes

**2012 and 2013 are Mirror Images For Alex Dickerson

**Pirates DFA James McDonald, Recall Cumpton

**Starling Marte Activated, But Probably as a Pinch Runner

**Prospect Watch: West Virginia Eliminated; Jamestown Goes to Deciding Game

**Minor League Schedule: Jamestown in Must Win Game Tonight

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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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: For the second game in a row with St Louis our SP’s have started the game by showing a kink in the armor by walking the first batter of the game. For Burnett, that was his only walk, but it was an indication that he did not have the command to beat a team like the Cardinals. For Locke, that first walk was only a sign of negative things to happen. He ran through the raindrops – in the 2nd he got the first out, then walked the next two batters and was lucky to get out of it. In the 3rd he gave up a leadoff double to the pitcher, but was lucky to get out of it. In the 4th he started again with a leadoff walk, then a double to a guy he had down 0-2 or 1-2, but could not get either of the next two pitches anywhere near the plate. Is this the same pitcher who used to own the inside corner? On 2 strikes the Cardinals always look to take the ball straight out or the opposite way – so Locke obliges by handing him a fastball up and out over the plate. He threw in a wild pitch later that hurt and gave up 2 runs. Then in the 5th he starts by hitting the leadoff batter, who ended up scoring for a 3-0 lead. This is not major league caliber pitching at a time when we need the very best our pitchers have. It seems to be obvious that the Cardinals want this series much more than the Pirates, and that is not good.

  • benh444

    Completely agree with this as it appears evident that the team needs wandy for any sort of playoff run. To expand on the point, I would use liriano Burnett and Morton regularly, then go with a Wandy/Stolmy and Cole/Locke combination. Both give you a lefty righty switch in the game as well as a change of pace in velocity. This could prevent teams from loading up lefties or righties against either combo and possibly help maximize each pitcher’s ability

    • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

      Very interesting approach Ben. I like the W/S C/L Combo with the caveat that if Cole is pitching as well as he has the second half that you let him continue / bypass Locke. Cole is a horse and although he has exceeded innings of last year, that’s the point – to exceed last years innings and build up stamina. He is the one starter, along with Liriano, who has shut down stuff. You don’t pull him if he’s executing. I love Burnett but he’s more of a pitcher now with stuff that is very good but not shut down material.
      Wandy was dominant in the WBC and if there is any chance of him bringing that kind of effort to the playoff run then the team needs to do whatever they can to get him ready. Is there enough time to get him into that kind of pitching condition though? It all depends on his health one would guess.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    I have been a proponent of piggy backing with Wandy on PG Plus. However, Hurdle will never do it. He is a very conservative manager.

    Foo

    .

  • Andrew

    I believe the Red Sox are doing something similar with Clay Buchloz is going to pitch 75-80 pitches in start against Tampa, after going something like 50 pitches in a rehab at AAA. Obviously the circumstances (Buchholz is a better pitcher and cushion in the standings) are different but at least some of the unorthodoxy is removed, pushing the likelihood above zero.

    I always find it interesting what strategies managers are willing to implement that go against the industry standard. Hurdle does not utilize optimal bullpen management and shows little willingness to play percentages with late game lineups, but he is willing to utilize defensive shifts. There are margins to exploit, for the willing.

  • ChirpCity

    I’m a bit surprised to read this article today after yesterday’s first pitch which said the playoffs basically start now. Using a strategy traditionally employed in the minor leagues during a pennant chase/playoff situation would seem unconventional at the least. That being said, A playoff rotation containing wandy certainly would seem better than one relying in locke. Conversely, if cole is indeed one of the top 4 starters, as currently evidenced by his peripherals, taking a chance on piggybacking wandy and (insert AAA depth option here) at the expense of using cole might not be in the club’s best interest at this point (potential innings limit notwithstanding) if the goal is to have the best 4 starters starting during the playoffs. Which are essentially starting now. Factoring in wandy’s potential for injury reaggrivation/dead money next year throws another wrench in the machine as well. I guess at the end of the day, it might be worth sacrificing a couple of starts of a known quantity to potentially gain strength for the playoffs if wandy can bounce back. Then again, a loss in a one game wildcard could make this all moot. Ugh. Uncertainty.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      It just depends on whether you think Locke is a better option the rest of the year than Wandy. You’re only really piggybacking one start. Maybe two. The alternative is that you keep going with Locke, who is struggling.

  • https://profiles.google.com/105656080623178895120 james vargo

    Who isn’t struggling? Why the whole system struggles the same way and same time is mind-boggling. I give the Pirates credit — i think they have squeezed as much effort out of this team as possible. i just wonder if there are examples of other teams falling flat on a consistent basis — like the steam as gone out of their sails. And TEXAS is next!!!

    • CalipariFan506

      Just once I’d like people to quit insulting my intelligence by saying the team will not fall apart, collapse, whatever and calling me negative hen I bring it up. The people who looks like fools are the ones who keep believing the Pirates can ever finish a season. The starting pitching falls off a cliff every season.