When the Pirates traded Travis Snider to the Baltimore Orioles at the start of the year, Steven Brault was one of the initial rumored named to be coming back to the team. At the time, Brault’s upside didn’t look great. He threw in the upper 80s to lower 90s, and looked like more of a control specialist, which usually amounts to a low upside for the majors. The Pirates ended up getting Stephen Tarpley and a player to be named later, with Tarpley showing more upside, hitting 97 MPH and working in the low-90s.
Brault ended up in the deal as that player to be named later, and his inclusion is part of what has taken the Snider trade from a good deal to potentially a big steal. Tarpley had a fantastic season in West Virginia, with a 2.48 ERA in 116 innings, and a 105:25 K/BB ratio, while showing his good fastball velocity for a left-hander. But Brault’s season, and more importantly his stuff, has shown that the Pirates got him at a low point in value.
The 2015 season isn’t over for Brault, as he will still pitch in the Eastern League playoffs. However, the regular season has completed, and he finished with a 2.43 ERA in 155.2 innings between Bradenton and Altoona. Those numbers include a 2.00 ERA in 90 innings in Altoona, with an 80:19 K/BB ratio. Brault capped off his Double-A campaign with an amazing ten game stretch where he had an 0.96 ERA in 65.1 innings, with a 53:14 K/BB ratio.
“Our guys did a nice job of identifying traits that we feel are allowing him to play,” Neal Huntington said when I asked about Brault on Sunday in St. Louis. “Athletic, two-way player out of college. As guys generally focus from being a two-way player to being one way, they tend to get better. He’s got deception. He’s got athleticism. He can repeat his delivery, which allows him to command his stuff. They don’t seem to square it up very much, which again comes back to command, deception, and late movement on his pitches.”
Huntington’s comments on Brault’s stuff match what I’ve seen from the left-hander since Spring Training, and they were a big reason I had him as a breakout candidate this year. Brault throws a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball, with the former sitting in the low-90s, and the latter only reaching the upper 80s. Despite the velocity, his two-seamer looks like the better pitch. Brault throws it down in the zone on a downward plane. Then, when it reaches the plate, it has late cutting action. The result is that the pitch drops as it’s approaching the batter, and then as it crosses the plate it cuts and drops again. He commands the pitch well, which is why it is incredibly difficult for batters to square up on his stuff.
The “athletic, two-way player out of college” aspect also showed up on the other side of the game in a small sample size. Brault went 7-for-16 at the plate with Altoona, and could have some value at the plate when he eventually reaches the majors for the Pirates.
Brault’s success in Altoona raises the question of whether the Pirates will move him to Indianapolis next year. It’s a question that won’t be answered until the end of Spring Training next year. The jump to Indianapolis at the start isn’t just about merit, but also about the needs of the Pirates in the majors, and the makeup of the team.
At the start of the 2016 season, Indianapolis should have Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow in their rotation. Casey Sadler should join them if he’s healthy. Brandon Cumpton could be in that mix if his return from Tommy John surgery goes well. The Pirates also like to have a few guys who can make the jump to the majors early in the season. That would be Sadler and Cumpton, but there’s a possibility that the Pirates could also add a Clayton Richard-like option for the rotation.
The result is that there may be one rotation spot open for promotions in 2016, with a small chance at two spots. That would make it difficult for Brault to move up, especially with Chad Kuhl looking like another strong option for a promotion. But when I asked if that’s a possibility for Brault, Huntington said he was in the picture.
“He’s positioning himself to be one of those guys that’s strongly considered to move to that Triple-A rotation out of the gate next year,” Huntington said. “He needs to come in, in great shape. He needs to come in ready to tackle and handle one of those roles.”
That is interesting, as the Pirates typically give their starters around 150+ innings at the Double-A level, which is the equivalent of a full minor league season. Only two starters have moved up with less than a full season of innings: Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow. Brault isn’t the same class of pitcher, obviously, but he is very advanced and doesn’t look like he has much left to learn in Double-A. He will also go to the Arizona Fall League this off-season, where he will continue getting innings against upper level hitters. And if Altoona makes a long playoff run, he could get one or two more starts in the post-season to add to his current 90 innings at the level.
“Sitting here today, he’s absolutely positioned himself as a guy who could make that jump, rather than filling the equivalent of the whole year at Double-A,” Huntington said. “Because he’s done a great job, he’s done what we’ve asked him to do. If he continues to do that, and has a good off-season, he could position himself for that Indianapolis rotation at the start of the year.”
Brault wasn’t high on the radar coming into the 2015 season. Baseball America had him as the 18th best prospect in the Baltimore farm system, with an upside of 45 and high risk. That amounted to a future as a number five starter or a set-up man, and the high risk didn’t give a great chance of that happening. Brault has definitely improved in both areas, both in upside and in risk. He seems like a future number four starter, and his risk doesn’t seem that high anymore.
We don’t do our year-end rankings until the 2016 Prospect Guide comes out in mid-December. Every year there are a few guys who I’m always interested in seeing where they end up in the rankings. Brault will be one of those guys this year. The Pirates were high on him at the start of the year, and that allowed them to buy when his stock was low. They remain high on him now, and if he doesn’t make the jump to Triple-A on Opening Day, it seems like it will definitely happen at some point in 2016.