I wasn’t following the situation closely, but today’s Doug Fister signing by the Astros might have been the first time I heard Doug Fister’s name mentioned this off-season in a rumor. I have heard his name mentioned often on here, and usually in the form of “why hasn’t Doug Fister been talked about more this off-season?”
There might have been some who would have preferred Fister over Ryan Vogelsong. That probably doesn’t apply to everyone, since I’m sure Fister’s decline in velocity would have raised some red flags. But maybe in place of Fister, there are some who would want to see someone else replacing Vogelsong in the current rotation, such as Mat Latos.
I don’t want to make this an article about replacing Vogelsong, because that topic has been discussed often. Maybe the Pirates end up signing someone else to replace him in the rotation. Maybe they don’t. As I’ve said many times, I think they should. But how did they arrive in this situation to begin with?
The answer lies in their 2015 injuries. The Pirates were fortunate to avoid a lot of injuries to their MLB pitching staff in 2015. A.J. Burnett’s late season injury was the most notable one. Charlie Morton missed the first two months after needing time to work on his mechanics. But outside of that, they were fine with injuries at the big league level, and had J.A. Happ step in to replace Burnett, so that their biggest injury barely impacted them at all.
It wasn’t the same case in the minors. Almost all of their pitching depth options went down with injuries. Nick Kingham looked to be one of the top prospects to arrive last year, but went down in May with Tommy John surgery. Brandon Cumpton had the same procedure during Spring Training. Casey Sadler made a spot start in April while Francisco Liriano was on paternity leave, but was shut down shortly after that and eventually needed Tommy John as well.
Jameson Taillon was the top prospect expected to arrive by mid-season. He was returning from Tommy John, and was just about to get back in real games in early July when he went down for the season with hernia surgery.
Even some of the second half pitching depth options ended up not working out. Angel Sanchez was emerging as a prospect, posting a 2.55 ERA in 60 innings in Triple-A, with a 50:15 K/BB and a fastball that was consistently working in the mid-90s. He, too, went down with Tommy John surgery.
One of the few guys who stayed healthy, Adrian Sampson, struggled and was eventually traded for Happ. The other interesting guy who was healthy was Clayton Richard, who was lost to the Cubs as a free agent when the Pirates had no room for him in early July. He went on to post a 3.43 xFIP in 42.1 innings in the majors.
It all makes you wonder what would have happened if Taillon wouldn’t have had the hernia surgery, or if Kingham wouldn’t have had Tommy John. I’m not sure that Sadler or Cumpton would have been more than depth out of Triple-A, and the same goes for Sanchez, but that played an impact here too. I think if one of Taillon or Kingham were ready, you wouldn’t have seen the trade for Happ, and whichever starter was healthy would currently be in Vogelsong’s spot in the rotation. And who knows? Maybe Happ is their big reclamation project in 2016 without that boost the final two months with the Pirates. But that gets a little too speculative.
If you want a reason for Vogelsong in the rotation, it’s because of the injuries in 2015. They didn’t impact the MLB level last year, but their impact is seen this off-season. It also doesn’t help that the Pirates have two top prospects set to arrive this summer (Taillon and Tyler Glasnow), plus a lot of other talented pitching prospects behind them (Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams). I don’t think that’s a good reason for Vogelsong to be in the rotation, as they could have found a better one year option and even a multi-year option wouldn’t hurt them, since you can never have too much pitching depth.
There is always the chance that the Ray Searage effect could take place here, but I think that’s slim in this case. Vogelsong hasn’t been above a 1.3 WAR since 2012, and at his age it would be way too optimistic to assume he returns to those levels. He’s not a heavy ground ball pitcher, so he won’t benefit from the defensive shifts and infield defense. I think he’d be a great fit for the current bullpen philosophy of having a lot of long relievers who could take over early for the rotation, as well as being the top depth option early in the season if a starter goes down. But that requires another starter to be brought in.
It should be noted that Latos and Justin Masterson — the two guys the Pirates have been linked to multiple times, even after the signing of Vogelsong — are still free agents. So there’s still a chance that Vogelsong could be bumped, especially with the Pirates currently sitting at $96.5 M in payroll, although I wouldn’t bank on that.
If Vogelsong is in the rotation, then you’d hope for the Ray Searage magic to get the most out of him as possible, while hoping that this year’s top prospects and depth options don’t have the same injury issues as last year, thus resulting in an earlier upgrade. But honestly, if Vogelsong is in the rotation, then the Pirates would have already been late upgrading that spot.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #7 – Reese McGuire. The top 10 countdown continues. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.
**Starling Marte Rated Second Among Left Fielders, Kang Among Best 3B. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned much this off-season: while the Pirates haven’t added a lot of talent from the outside, they already had a ton of talent on the team. That kind of thing seems to be overlooked every off-season.
**Austin Meadows Ranks Fourth Among the Top Outfield Prospects. This could be an interesting year for Meadows, as he seems to be trending up and getting a lot of attention outside of Pittsburgh.