Depth was a big reason why the Pittsburgh Pirates had a strong rotation in 2013. They had a lot of injuries, but it seemed like every time they had an injury come up, they had a Major League ready pitcher to step into the rotation and take over. One of the biggest boosts last year was Gerrit Cole, who was pitching like an ace by the end of the year. The hope was that Jameson Taillon would arrive by mid-season 2014 and do the same thing that Cole did last year. Today it was announced that Taillon will need Tommy John surgery, which means that the earliest he could arrive in the majors is next June.
The Pirates still have a lot of depth options, although none with the upside that Taillon could have provided. Here are the current depth options, minus Taillon.
MLB Bullpen Options
Stolmy Pimentel – He threw four innings in extras last week, and looked impressive. The Pirates really like Pimentel, and view him as a rotation candidate for the 2015 season. He’s got the stuff to be a number two or number three starter in the majors, although consistency problems limit that upside and make him more likely to be a number four starter. I’d expect him to get the first crack at the rotation this year, especially if an opportunity arises early in the season.
Jeanmar Gomez – Gomez played a big role in the rotation last year, making a lot of starts for the Pirates early in the season. He could return to that same role this year, although I think Pimentel will be this year’s version of Gomez.
Brandon Cumpton – He had success in the rotation last year, although he’s not as good as his 2.05 ERA in that limited time last year. Cumpton continued having success in Spring Training, and had a great 2014 debut last night with Indianapolis. His true talent is a back of the rotation starter, although he could play up with the Pirates due to his high ground ball ratio and excellent fastball command.
Jeff Locke – Last season Locke was pitching like an ace in the first half of the season, and pitching like he belonged in Triple-A in the second half. I didn’t think he was as good as the first half, and he wasn’t as bad as the second half. Before he arrived in the majors, I saw his upside as a strong number four starter. I still see that as his upside. He’s currently rehabbing, and will throw a full game in Bradenton on Wednesday, with the goal being 100 pitches. The Pirates won’t need him right away, so he will go to Indianapolis to serve as depth.
Phil Irwin – He only got one start in the majors last year, then went down after having ulnar nerve transposition surgery. Irwin looked sharp during Spring Training. His curveball is a plus offering, and when he’s commanding his fastball, he’s got the stuff to be a Major League starter. Like Cumpton and Locke, Irwin’s upside is a back of the rotation starter.
Casey Sadler – The Pirates love sinkerball pitchers, and Sadler does an excellent job in that area. In his first start of the season, he had a 61% ground ball ratio while giving up one run in six innings. Just like the other guys on this list, Sadler profiles as a back of the rotation starter. However, his heavy sinkerball approach could play up in Pittsburgh.
Double-A and Minor League Free Agents
Nick Kingham – With the injury to Taillon, Nick Kingham becomes the pitching prospect to watch in the upper levels. He started back in Altoona in part because there was no projected long-term spot in the rotation for him in Triple-A. Jake Brigham and Adam Wilk are currently in the Indianapolis rotation, although Locke and Taillon were expected to take those spots. Kingham had a good start today, going six shutout innings, with three walks and three hits, while striking out six. Last year he had a 2.70 ERA in 73.1 innings in Double-A, with an 8.5 K/9 and a 3.7 BB/9. It’s possible that Kingham could move up to Triple-A sooner than expected with Taillon out.
If Kingham does move up to Triple-A, then he could be the big guy to watch for a possible arrival to Pittsburgh in the second half. He’s got more upside than anyone on this list. The conservative projection for him is a solid number three starter who can eat 200 innings per year. He has been improving his game each year, and could exceed the number three starter projection if those improvements keep coming. At this point, it wouldn’t be crazy to think he could become a solid number two starter in the majors. I wouldn’t expect that right away, but Kingham has a chance of arriving in the second half, and now replaces Taillon as the best pitching prospect who could arrive this year.
Jake Brigham/Adam Wilk/Vance Worley – These guys are Kris Johnson-level emergency depth. Brigham and Wilk are currently pitching in the Triple-A rotation. Worley is getting stretched out in extended Spring Training. But for one of them to be a starter in the majors this year, the Pirates would need to see at least eight starting pitchers struggle or get injured. Most teams have these types of guys much higher on their depth charts, and not as the 13-15 options (or 14-16 before Taillon’s injury).