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.

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31 COMMENTS

  1. I have a higher upside than Jeff Locke and I can’t pitch for squat! There’s always a “but if” clause when he pitches. “But if S-Rod,” “But, if he could control his fast ball..”, but if Byrd hadn’t hit the HR…”

    He needs traded or DFA’d, but someone always wants a lefty.

  2. I think we’re all missing one thing…the Braves gave the Pirates 2/5s of the Buccos starting rotation for Nate the Great…and opened the door for Cutch. Locke has served a far greater purpose than a #5 starter…lol

    But yes…the 8 game stretches every year have been nice too!

  3. I understand rating a pitchers ceiling in the rotation is based off of the quantity and quality of his pitches as well as his command of those pitches. With that being said, who in our system currently projects as a #2 or #3 starter? It seems we have several #4 and #5′ s ( Brault, Kuhl, Cumpton, ) and I’m hoping Taillon still carries an upside of a # 1 or #2, as Glasnow obviously does. Does Garcia, Tarpley and Kingham project to be #3 ceiling type guys?

    • It’s harder to get a read on the lower level guys because there is so much projection involved. I’m usually conservative unless there’s someone I really like (such as Glasnow, who I’ve been saying could be a top of the rotation guy for years).

      In the upper levels, the top-to-mid rotation candidates would be Glasnow, Taillon, and Kingham. As for guys like Brault and Kuhl, they’d have a chance if they can be consistent with their stuff, although that’s the story with any pitcher, and it’s easier said than done.

  4. saw him Friday night in Binghamton and he was outstanding. Got a good look at movement and his fastball has a late downward break.

    Meadows, very impressive swing. He consistently drove the ball all weekend

  5. Only bad thing is we still have Snyder. Can anyone please explain to me the love affair with this guy. ? He was horrible in the AL. Let’s give it a rest.

  6. I can appreciate the early season depth argument, but neither Cumpton nor Sadler have a starter-quality secondary pitch that will play at the Big League level. Brault and Kuhl still most certainly have risks of their own, but I hate to see starting prospects blocked by guys who will end up as relievers in the near future.

    It ultimately should amount to no more than a few months of development time either way, which absolutely nobody remembers in the long run for good reason, but for my money both current AA pitchers should be starting in AAA with one of Cumpton/Sadler in the pen and starting depth coming from a current big league starter pushed to the pen as long man once better alternatives are brought in this winter.

    With Hurdle’s stated affinity for having two lefties in the rotation, Locke’s stunted development, and Brault’s relative polish I’d be very tempted to see how far and how fast Steven can take himself.

      • Cumpton pitched well in a starter’s role the first time he was used that way, in 2013. Last year he got lit up, in my opinion, because the league adjusted to his extremely thin repertoire.

        Guy simply doesn’t have any mechanism for disrupting a hitter’s timing; not enough velocity separation, movement, or deception to keep them off balance. Everything he throws is hard, straight, and over the plate.

    • My counter to this argument would be that you’re not going to get much better than Cumpton and Sadler when you’re talking about Triple-A depth. Sure, the Pirates will have better from prospects, but they’re unlikely to be up.

      Also, Cumpton and Sadler have both been good in their roles as depth players. Sadler had a big start this year before going down injured. Cumpton made some big starts and played an important role in 2013-2014 when the Pirates were losing starters to injury.

      You’re not going to find depth out of Triple-A that’s much better than what those two have done the last few years.

      • On paper next year, the Pirates appear to have a solid mix of AAA SP depth with some experience along with higher upside prospects. If Brault ends up being blocked to start the year, it sounds like a good problem to have. I would bank on him starting in AA and moving up when someone is promoted.

      • Nor do I think you would find depth starters in AAA appreciably better than Cumpton/Sadler. What I suggested was that those players are likely no more than that, and will almost certainly settle into roles as middle relievers in the very near future. I hate seeing an actual starting prospect’s development stunted for very long just to keep those kind of guys stretched out, and would rather see the club build early depth by pushing a back end starter to a bullpen role as they did this season.

        But again, we’re only talking a few months until the logjam (hopefully) matriculates upward, and that’s the kind of “problem” nobody really cares for very long.

  7. Kingham ETA into the rotation? I know his TJS was in late May…is he on a similar late May timetable for return? Or might he be held back a little longer until one of Taillon/Glasnow is promoted in Mid-late June?

    • Usually more like 16 months in the Pirates’ organization. Although it depends what you mean by “return”. He would likely be throwing by May, but I would think he wouldn’t be ready for AAA competition until late 2016, and they may wait until 2017 at that point.

      • It’s actually closer to 10 months til they start throwing and twelve til game action, but the level seems to depend as much on the prospect as it does the injury. Morton was pitching in Big League games a year after, Taillon would’ve been ready for AAA at about 13 months, and Holmes was held back about two months longer than that for what seemed to be as much about development as it was injury.

        I don’t think there’s any reason, barring a major setback, that Kingham couldn’t get 75 AAA innings next year.

        • They actually start throwing after four months. Ten months is usually when they start throwing off the mound. Taillon and Holmes started doing more than bullpens a little after the one year mark.

  8. Tim could answer this better than I could but when Atlanta drafted Locke I would have to think he was ranked higher on the prospect lists because of where he was drafted (2nd round). I think they asked around for him during the Bay deal. But he sputtered a little at AAA or you could argue it wasn’t quite a linear path to the majors. I wanted him to get more of a look than he did at first. You might be able to argue Brault will come with higher expectations than Locke if he keeps it up.

    • Locke, if he was consistent, could easily be considered a #3.

      So, in that sense he has more upside than Brault. But, as Jeff has shown, he CAN’T be consistent.

      Brault’s ceiling is a #4.

    • I think he was ranked high because he was a left-hander who could hit mid-90s with his fastball at a very young age. He was untouchable for Atlanta until he started having problems in A-ball. So it appears he was ranked high due to projectability, and then at the first sign of trouble his stock dropped enough for the Pirates to get him.

  9. Does Brault have a higher upside than a Jeff Locke? By this description, he kinda sounds like a left handed Mike Leake…

    • I love that Mike Leake comp. Plus command of a four-pitch mix with a bit of deception in an athletic delivery sounds pretty darn close.

      I don’t think i’d say Brault has higher upside than Locke, but I absolutely believe he has a greater chance of putting it all together. Locke’s pitches individually are probably all a half-grade better than Brault, but Locke doesn’t have near the kind of command needed to make them usable on a consistent basis.

      • We’ve seen Locke pitch fantastically for 7-8 start stretches on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, those streaks are like once a year and the other 20 starts, it’s been 4-5 runs over 4-5 innings. Locke has good upside. The problem is, he rarely hits that upside. Brault has the command that makes it looks like he could exceed his upside.

      • Rather see a Pitcher with lesser stuff and greater command than other way around. Unless of course his stuff is Nolan Ryanesque.

        • Agreed, but I actually think that’s far more difficult and rare than the opposite. Some will assert that clubs have become infatuated with velocity and that guys like Colon/Buehrle/Haren, etc wouldn’t even get a chance today.

          I think that’s absolute balogna. There’s far, far more guys in the minors with plus fastballs than there are guys with plus command. The reason you see more of the big arm guys getting chances is that there’s simply more room for error. If you are that guy who only brings it in the high 80s, simply having good control ain’t gonna cut it. You *must* be able to command the ball, and doing that well is incredibly difficult.

          • I completely agree with your statement NMR. Change speeds, move ball in and out, up and down, and you’ll have a very successful Pitcher. Any era. Any Park.

    • Wandy Rodriguez always pops into my mind when I hear about Brault. Command-and-control lefty who uses location and deception to overcome a slow-ish fastball. Can strike guys out, but doesn’t do a ton of it, doesn’t walk anyone, limits quality of contact.

      Until the injuries derailed him, Wandy was a pretty effective pitcher, too, and as a lefty in that absurd ballpark in Houston for much of it. He had a stretch of 5 of 6 seasons posting at least 2.5 WAR, peaking at 4.1, over which stretch his ERAs were consistently mid-3s.

      Brault turning into a young Wandy isn’t a result I would hate, that’s for sure.

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