BRADENTON, Fla. – All throughout the off-season, it looked like the Pirates would carry a rotation that included Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong in the fourth and fifth spots, with Juan Nicasio serving as a long-man and rotation depth out of the bullpen. It looked the same way throughout Spring Training, with Nicasio only being talked about as an option to be stretched out. But today, Neal Huntington said that Nicasio was in the mix for a rotation spot.
“They’re two of our six options,” Huntington said when answering a question about Vogelsong and Nicasio. “You look at [Gerrit] Cole and [Francisco] Liriano and you build the rotation around them. We fully anticipate Jon Niese will be in the rotation. We brought those three guys — Locke, Nicasio and Vogelsong — two of those three will be our fourth and fifth starters to start the season. I think you all know well enough we’re going to need a sixth starter some time before we want to, and that’s where it’s great to have those guys ready to go.”
Nicasio will make a start this afternoon, and really drew a lot of attention after striking out ten batters in four innings his last time out against the Orioles. That might have been what got him in the conversation for one of the rotation spots.
“We’ve still got two weeks to go, he’s thrown the ball very well in Spring Training,” Huntington said. “We’ve seen some very strong outings and very strong indicators from Vogelsong and Locke. We don’t want to say it’s a wide open competition, yet at the same time we brought Juan here for a reason.”
Huntington said that they brought Nicasio as an option to start and pitch out of the bullpen. He also noted they liked Ryan Vogelsong’s success in the first half last year, before he started bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, and how they liked Niese’s first half. In Nicasio’s case, they’ve talked about how they liked what he did in the bullpen last year, and liked some things below the numbers when he was a starter in Colorado.
“When we signed him, we worked off the normalized numbers coming out of Colorado,” Huntington said. “On the surface they don’t look all that pretty, but we think there are some things that we can help, whether it’s approach, mechanics, our ballpark, our defense. We think that will help in the same way.”
I wouldn’t say that Nicasio is a guarantee to make the rotation at all. But it seems he’s got more of a shot now than he did before Spring Training started. And if he continues pitching well, then he could leave less room for error with Locke (working on new mechanics) and Vogelsong (working on who knows what?).
“We’ve got a group of pitchers that we think give us some starting depth, and we’ll see how it plays out,” Huntington said.
The Bullpen Picking up the Slack for the Rotation
The topic of Nicasio possibly making the rotation came up with the talk of how the Pirates approached the bullpen this off-season. Huntington noted that the cost of starting pitching is always expensive, but that “the market truly blew up this year.” They traded Neil Walker to acquire a starting pitcher who was under control for a few years, and dealt Charlie Morton to create some salary relief for Vogelsong and Nicasio.
“That’s where starter 5 and starter 6 will come from,” Huntington said of Vogelsong and Nicasio. “At the same time we wanted to build a bullpen that Clint could use frequently but also for multiple innings. And that’s where the multiple, multiple inning guys have come from. We saw some benefit to it from a year ago. That’s where Nicasio, as well as Feliz, who has also pitched late in the game, have pitched multiple innings in the past. And a handful of guys — stretching Caminero out, stretching Hughes out, giving Clint multiple innings. In perfect world the last guy in the bullpen can go one-plus.”
I wrote last week that Nicasio looks more like a typical reclamation project than Vogelsong or Niese, due primarily to his stuff. But none of the 3-6 options look like guys who can go deep into games like Cole or Liriano. And so the bullpen is currently set up to allow for Clint Hurdle to shorten games and take starters out early. Huntington mentioned that the trade for Joakim Soria last year was in line with this approach, giving another premium arm late in the game. He also noted that this allowed them to remove J.A. Happ earlier in a lot of starts.
Happ only pitched beyond the sixth inning twice, and one of those starts came with a quick hook in the seventh. Three of his first five starts saw him below 90 pitches, even though he was giving up zero or one runs in those three outings, and only pitching into the sixth inning. There was also a start against the Cardinals where he threw 56 pitches in six shutout innings, before being pulled.
The bullpen set up this year could allow the Pirates to get a bit more aggressive, pulling guys earlier than the sixth inning, and using long relievers to bridge the gap to their shutdown guys in the later innings.
“That’s part of the multiple, multi-inning guys is to give the Clint the ability — as he did with J.A. Happ last year, as he did with some of our guys later in the season — that he can go get [a starter] early if wants to. If they’ve thrown six good innings he’ll go get them. In a perfect world this year, if he needs to go get someone in the fifth we have guys that can go multiple innings, five and six with somebody, then the seventh and eighth with someone, then hopefully it’s the ninth with Melancon.”
So no matter who is starting, the Pirates might not always need them to go deep into games, since their bullpen is set up to allow them to remove guys at the first sign of trouble, rather than making sure they can pitch into the sixth and seventh innings.
**One interesting roster decision for the bench will involve whether the Pirates keep Matt Joyce as a fourth outfielder, or whether they go with super utility guys like Cole Figueroa and Sean Rodriguez as their backup outfielders off the bench.
“We’ve got some really interesting decisions to make as this winds down,” Huntington said. “Matt Joyce obviously does damage against right-handed pitchers. Could be that fourth outfielder if we went with a pure fourth outfielder. We’ve got Figueroa, Rodriguez that can run into the outfield. Morse can run into the outfield. Rogers has been in the outfield. We’ve spent most of our time with him at third base, trying to see if he can be a corner utility guy for us, bounce back between first and third. We’ll have some interesting decisions.”
Joyce is an Article XX-B minor league free agent, meaning the Pirates could keep him in Triple-A by paying him a $100,000 retention bonus five days before the start of the season. He could then opt out of his deal on June 1st, and I learned yesterday that he has no opt out before that point.
The Pirates could go with Joyce as depth out of Triple-A, and go with the super utility guys off the bench at the start of the year. The bench depth isn’t that important when you consider that Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco won’t get as much time off as players at other positions. But the Pirates will need a good depth option if one of those guys goes down, and Joyce would be the top guy for that depth option.
“We like our depth in Triple-A,” Huntington said. “At the same time, we do need to be cognizant of who would play the outfield on a regular basis if we had an injury, and where would we go with that, and that will be part of the decision process as we move forward.”
**Once again, don’t think that the final bullpen spot will automatically go to a second left-hander: “If that second lefty can get right-handers out with consistency, it would be great. But we’d much rather have seven pitchers that Clint believes in and trusts, and Ray believes in and trusts. If two of them happen to be left-handed, because that’s the way we’ve put this together, that is a benefit. But, again, we’re looking for seven pitchers that can get guys from both sides out.”
**Huntington repeated that they’re still looking at a mid-to-late April return for Jung-ho Kang.
**Speaking of the outfield, the Pirates consider Michael Morse an option there, but not exactly due to his defense.
“We like him in the batter’s box,” Huntington said. “He’s gonna go play first and right field and he’ll give us everything he has. 21-foot wall not too far behind you helps right fielders. We’ve seen guys come into PNC Park who are not very good defensive outfielders and go out into left field and not get exposed over a series. Over an extended period of time, you’d like a better defender out there, but Mike’s going to give us everything he has. We’re comfortable putting him in right field on occasion. Much more comfortable with him in the batter’s box. Obviously we are very comfortable with him at first base.”