One of the biggest keys to the 2013 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates was their pitching depth. The Pirates used 12 different starting pitchers, and most of those starters were used in the first three months of the season. That didn’t count guys like Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson, who were counted on pre-season as depth options, but weren’t available due to injuries.
The off-season focus is always on the five man rotation, but I think that the 2013 season makes a strong case that the next five starters are far more important than the first five. Very few teams will make it with just the first five starters, which means that 6-10 group is going to be needed for a lot of starts. In the Pirates case, they had 82 starts this year from their Opening Day rotation, and 82 from the next seven players on the depth chart. It’s important to note that 46 of those starts came from Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, who both started the year on the DL and were expected to join the rotation at some point. But I don’t want to use revisionist history here, because neither pitcher was seen as a guarantee to provide any kind of strong production before they returned.
The 2013 season was a prime example of the importance of pitching depth. So how does the depth stack up in 2014?
In previous years we have seen the Pirates prioritize short-term depth at Triple-A. This has meant that some players have started back in Double-A so that the Pirates could have major league options available in the Triple-A rotation. In the long-term, this doesn’t impact anything. In 2011 the Pirates started Jeff Locke back in Double-A so that Brian Burres and Sean Gallagher could provide depth out of Triple-A. Both players ended up in Pittsburgh that year, but more importantly, Locke made it to Triple-A by mid-season and was in the majors by the end of the year.
In 2014, the Pirates could have a situation where they might hold prospects back, although only because other prospects or young players will be filling the Triple-A rotation as immediate depth. A lot will depend on the major league rotation. If A.J. Burnett returns, then I project the major league rotation to look like this:
Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez
Obviously Wandy Rodriguez is a wild card, due to his health issues. The key person absent from this group would be Jeff Locke. He’s the only player from the above group with an option remaining, other than Gerrit Cole, and you’re not optioning Cole. That means Locke is your sixth starter out of Triple-A if Burnett returns.
Jameson Taillon will absolutely be starting the season in Triple-A, which takes a second rotation spot. Taillon won’t be ready until at least the middle of June, much like Gerrit Cole this year. But depth isn’t just about the early part of the season. Cole came up at a key time when the Pirates needed a starter to fill out the rotation. They lost three starting pitchers in the first eight days in June, and Cole was a big reason why the rotation stayed stable the rest of the season, despite those injuries. Hopefully Taillon will only be needed as a luxury, rather than a need.
Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin both made it to the majors this past season. Both will probably start with Indianapolis, giving two more options as early season starters behind Locke. I’d put them at number 7 and 8 respectively on the early season depth charts. The Pirates went through a ton of depth in the first two months of the 2013 season. That was unusual. Usually a team won’t go through eight starters until the middle of the season. So Locke, Cumpton, and Irwin should be enough until Taillon is ready.
That leaves one rotation spot in Triple-A, and two prospects from Double-A as contenders. Nick Kingham had a great year, with a 2.70 ERA in 73.1 innings with Altoona in the second half. Kingham could be ready for the majors in the second half of the 2013 season. Another candidate to make the jump is Casey Sadler. He had a 3.31 ERA in 130.1 innings with Altoona, and made the late season jump to Indianapolis. Kingham is the better prospect of the two, with the potential to be as high as a number two starter, but more conservatively a strong number three who can pitch 200 innings per year. Sadler is a sinkerball pitcher who fits into the Pirates’ scheme well. If I was leaving one pitcher back in Double-A at the start of the season, it would be Sadler. However, both could be options for the major league rotation late in the season.
Kyle McPherson is also a depth option. He will miss half the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent on July 10th. To give an idea of the timeline for a return, Charlie Morton underwent Tommy John surgery in early June 2012, and returned almost exactly one year later. That would put McPherson on a return to the majors around mid-July if all goes well with his recovery.
If the Pirates can keep Kris Johnson, then they will have another depth option. Johnson is under team control and has options remaining. I’d expect Johnson to pitch out of the bullpen in Triple-A at the start of the season, but he could move back to the rotation if the Pirates run into extreme trouble again.
I also think that Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, and Justin Wilson could be options as spot starters. I wouldn’t be against trying Wilson and Pimentel as starters in Spring Training, especially if Burnett doesn’t return. Of the two, Pimentel seems more likely to be used in a long-relief/spot starting role out of the bullpen.
To recap, here is my projected current depth chart, assuming A.J. Burnett returns:
1. Francisco Liriano
2. Gerrit Cole
3. A.J. Burnett
4. Charlie Morton
5. Wandy Rodriguez
6. Jeff Locke
7. Brandon Cumpton
8. Phil Irwin
9. Jameson Taillon (From this point down, guys are rated based on their estimated arrival)
10. Nick Kingham
11. Casey Sadler
12. Kyle McPherson
13. Kris Johnson
Spot Starting Options – Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, Justin Wilson
Even without making a move, the Pirates will have a lot of rotation depth. If Burnett doesn’t return, they will still have a strong rotation and plenty of depth, and could look to bring someone in from the outside. They will almost certainly bring in someone over the off-season, even if that’s an NRI candidate. Their depth could also make it possible to trade someone, although they would want to avoid trading a key long-term piece just because he’s a depth option in the short-term.
The depth in 2014 looks great, with a lot of the 2013 depth options returning, and new prospects becoming available by the middle of the season. The best thing is that the Pirates probably won’t need to turn to their depth as early and as often as they did this year, unless they have another fluke season with a lot of early injuries.