BRADENTON, Fl. – There was no shortage of prospects on the McKechnie Field mound today for the Black and Gold game. Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon highlighted the game by going up against each other, and were followed by Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, and John Holdzkom. But the question is when might we see these guys on the mound in PNC Park?
It’s pretty much a guarantee that Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon will need to start the year in Indianapolis. Glasnow needs improvements on dropping his curveball in for strikes, and improving his changeup, while Taillon needs to get adjusted to upper level hitting again. As for the other three, they’ve all got stuff to work on as well. So will any of these guys come up to the majors early in the season?
“That’s where a Kyle Lobstein [comes in],” Neal Huntington said today before the game. “Was a small trade, he’s been a Major League starting pitcher. We feel like there was more in ’14 than ’15, and we feel like we can get him healthy. [Juan] Nicasio is being stretched out in Spring Training. Because we’re not as comfortable that any of the guys coming from Double-A to Triple-A, or getting a little bit of Triple-A experience last year are going to be able to help us in April or May. Hopefully we’re wrong. But again, it comes back to readiness compared to need, and if we have a need early, that’s when Nicasio or Lobstein or [Wilfredo] Boscan or some of the other guys that we’ve signed come into play.”
Odds are that the Pirates would use Lobstein and Boscan in the Triple-A rotation at the start of the season, which means Brault and Williams might be bumped back down to Altoona at the start of the year. But that hasn’t stopped pitchers in the past from making the jump to the big leagues in that same season, with Jeff Locke being an example of a guy who started the year in Altoona and finished pitching in Pittsburgh.
One challenge here is that the Pirates are now contenders, as opposed to their position in late 2011 when Locke originally came up. That might make it more difficult for them to bring certain guys up, especially when you’re talking about Kuhl, Brault, and Williams, who are all behind two elite prospects in Glasnow and Taillon. Huntington is actually comfortable with giving guys more time in the minors, in order to avoid some growing pains in the majors.
“The longer we’ve given guys in the minor leagues, the smoother the transition has been,” Huntington said. “You look across the industry, there’s exceptions to every rule, but there’s a lot more guys that have been hurt by being pushed than guys that have been helped by being pushed. We need to be cognizant of that. We are now a playoff calibre team. There’s not as much room for growing pains at the Major League level, and that’s why we’re going to be as conservative as we can be.”
One thing is for sure though, the 2016 team will have a lot of opportunities for prospects to arrive in the majors. The Pirates not only have a great prospect rotation in Triple-A, but they have a lot of talented prospects in the infield and outfield. The infield is overloaded with guys like Alen Hanson, Max Moroff, Adam Frazier, Dan Gamache, Gift Ngoepe, and others who could have a future in the Majors. There’s also Josh Bell, who is expected to make his debut this year. The outfield adds Willy Garcia to that prospect mix.
“As we look at that Indianapolis projected roster, it’s a fun roster,” Huntington said. “It’s Pirates, or it’s guys who came to us earlier in their career via trades. Youth in Triple-A doesn’t always translate into wins, and we tried to let our group in Indianapolis know that. But for us, it is an exciting group, and you can look out and see Pirates most everywhere, and see guys that our scouts and development staff have done a nice job with. It also leaves us with some youth, and some guys that may make their debuts this year.”
Huntington mentioned the success that the Cardinals have had, noting that they have had young players ready to step in right away after an injury and do a good job. The Pirates have mostly relied on veterans and minor league free agents in the past for their depth, but they’re changing that approach this year, focusing on bringing up and using the younger guys as depth.
“As we’ve always said, we’re not going to use 25 players this year. It would be ideal if we did, but it’s not going to happen that way,” Huntington said. “And to have some guys that have come through our system, be ready to be on the verge of helping this Major League team, versus some of the external guys that we’ve brought in, in the past, it’s a good spot to be in as an organization.”
Nicasio’s Move to the Bullpen Might Help His Ability to Start
Huntington mentioned Juan Nicasio as an early season depth option for the rotation. Nicasio had a lot of success last year in the bullpen, but hasn’t had the same success in the past in the rotation, even if you remove the Coors Field impact in Colorado.
“He felt the changeup, the breaking ball both improved out of the bullpen,” Huntington said. “His focus improved, his intensity improved in terms of the realization, the importance of getting hitters out quickly. And the ability of being able to do that on one pitch, two pitches, and the benefit of how that allows him to get deeper into games.”
The Pirates believed that Nicasio might be able to channel his bullpen success into his role in the rotation, finding a way to pitch as a starter with his reliever mentality.
“We talked to him about taking the reliever mentality, inning-by-inning, and instead of trying to pace himself for seven innings, go be a reliever for seven one inning stints consecutively,” Huntington said. “We’ll see where he comes out. We’re excited about Ryan [Vogelsong] and Jeff [Locke], but as we’ve unfortunately experienced, pretty much every year here we’re going to need a sixth starter. And hopefully not by the end of Spring Training, but certainly by the end of May the odds are we’re going to need a sixth starter.”
Nicasio isn’t the most comfortable option for a sixth starter, especially with his track record. But if he does find success, he wouldn’t be the first starter-turned reliever who took what he learned in the bullpen and carried it back to the rotation for a much better result the second time around.
**Huntington mentioned that they’d be able to move Josh Harrison to third, if needed if Jung-ho Kang couldn’t return by Opening Day. He also might have tipped off the time frame when Kang could return.
“We’ll need to see where Kang is, as he progresses through. Are we thinking it’s closer to Opening Day, or closer to May 1st, and how long are we going to ask Josh to play third? We’re working Josh at second. The primary focus right now, do everything to make sure he’s comfortable there, with the hope that Kang’s going to be ready sooner than later. If Kang is ready later than sooner, we could make the adjustment.”
Kang returning at some point in April isn’t a surprise, since the injury update last week had that information. But Huntington and Hurdle have been talking more and more about having a plan if he’s ready for Opening Day, and another plan if he isn’t. That’s a good sign, as they aren’t totally ruling out that he might return for the start of the season. And based on his progression so far, it seems that he might be ready by that point.
**With all of the injuries to left-handed pitchers so far in camp, it looks like Eric O’Flaherty might have the inside track for a job in the bullpen if the Pirates go with two left-handers. That’s not a guarantee, as Clint Hurdle has said many times, but the Pirates do seem to like O’Flaherty a lot, and his ability to get back to where he was before 2015.
“Obviously on the surface, a tough year for Eric,” Huntington said. “One year back from Tommy John. Even as you talk to Eric, 2014, very different usage than 2015. 2016, we believe that he’ll be able to get back into not only quality use, but quality of stuff. Our guys saw the breaking ball, they saw the fastball command, they saw the deception. And again, surface numbers were what they were, but we thought some indicators were there and some stuff was there to give him a shot to come in and compete to make our club and help our club this year if things go well.”