First Pitch: The Prospects Are Giving the Pirates the Boost They Need

The Pirates entered the year with a rotation and a lineup full of prospects in Indianapolis this year. Some of those guys were being counted on to emerge and give the team a mid-season boost. Others were there to provide depth, if and when it was needed. In some cases, you almost didn’t want to see those guys getting a call to the majors, just because of what it meant.

Take the rotation, for example. At the start of the year, the rotation was Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Juan Nicasio. The mid-season callups were expected to be Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. It was possible that Chad Kuhl and/or Steven Brault could have made it to the majors as a starter, but it didn’t say good things about the state of the other seven starters (not to mention Ryan Vogelsong and other short-term options at the start of the year like Kyle Lobstein).

We are in that situation now. Gerrit Cole has been the only reliable starter this year, and he’s on the disabled list. Francisco Liriano has struggled, and really disappointed. Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Juan Nicasio have all struggled at times as well. Tyler Glasnow hasn’t looked ready yet. Jameson Taillon is ready, but is still somewhat limited on the season. Ryan Vogelsong got hit in the eye, and Kyle Lobstein isn’t a good starting option.

It wouldn’t have been a good situation to see Kuhl and Brault up in the situations they’re in right now, and it’s easy to see that now. On the other side of the coin, it’s outstanding that the Pirates have pitchers like Kuhl and Brault who they can turn to when so much goes wrong.

In watching Brault’s start tonight, I was reminded a lot of Kuhl’s first outing, and Taillon’s first outing before that. The overall results weren’t great, but you saw flashes of potential, and of the player being ready for the majors. In Brault’s case, the downside was that he only went four innings. This was in part due to a low pitch count, as he hasn’t been stretched out much this year, and was making his third start in a return from a hamstring injury. It was also due to not being able to put guys away early in the count, even in some situations where he went 0-2 right away.

Despite that, Brault showed some good tendencies, and what makes him a prospect. He showed a good fastball, using the four seam a bit more often, including blowing it by hitters for strike three on a few occasions. The slider looked good, with some nice movement, and better command of the pitch than I’ve seen in the past. He looked comfortable with the changeup, also getting good movement from the pitch. And he mixed everything up well, changing speeds often to keep hitters off-balance.

It might be coincidental, but the Pirates are now 9-2 and have won six in a row since they started calling up the prospects. Adam Frazier arrived on June 24th, when the streak started, and has been a spark off the bench ever since. Chad Kuhl joined the team two days later, and has done his part to put the team in position to win two games. Jameson Taillon, who was already up, had an outstanding start his last time out on June 29th. And now Brault comes up and continues the stretch.

It definitely helps that the bullpen has been outstanding during this stretch, and I think that could be in part due to the trickle down from the rotation. The addition of Chad Kuhl allowed the Pirates to move Juan Nicasio to the pen, and he has provided a big boost to the middle relief. We saw that impact tonight, when he was able to pick up Brault and go an extra two innings, handing things off to the rest of the relievers.

Of course, there are other factors at play here. Arquimedes Caminero looks like the guy we saw last year, rather than the guy who everyone was happy to see go to the disabled list earlier in the season. That has also boosted the middle relief. Tony Watson looks like he could be breaking out of his funk as well. The result is that the Pirates have a pretty dominant group with Mark Melancon, Watson, Neftali Feliz, Nicasio, and Caminero. We’re now seeing the results you hoped for this off-season, when the bullpen looked to be the strength of the pitching staff.

On the rotation side, there are other signs to point to, other than the prospects. However, during this stretch the rotation has included two prospects, and two of the other three guys haven’t been consistent with their success. Jeff Locke is the only non-prospect starter recently who has been putting up consistently good outings.

I think a big reason for the success overall is because the offense broke out of their slump from June. The offense ranked 14th in wOBA and 15th in wRC+ during the month of June. They rank 7th in each category so far in July, still falling below their early season totals, but well above their struggles last month.

I’m not going to say that the prospects are the reason the Pirates are having success lately. There are many reasons for that success, and the prospects are only part of that. But I do think they have provided a boost and a breath of fresh air when the team needed it, and I think you could objectively say that things probably wouldn’t be as good right now for the Pirates if they had the typical roster fillers, rather than Kuhl, Brault, and Frazier arriving in the last few weeks.

Hopefully we see more of that going forward. Glasnow had a strong outing this last time out. You’d want to see more of that from him going forward, to show it wasn’t just a fluke. He could make two more starts, and if all goes well, he could join the rotation in the second half. Fans are calling for Josh Bell more and more, and I’d love to see him up. I said it earlier in the season that I’d like to see him arrive in the second half, ease his way into the starting job, and provide a strong bench option when he’s not starting (with Jaso doing the same when he’s not starting). And once September rolls around, I think we could see the gates really open, with guys like Alen Hanson, Max Moroff, Trevor Williams, and others getting the call to the big leagues.

At the start of the season, the hope was that this would be the year where the farm system provided a boost for the Pirates, along with some depth, if needed. We’re seeing all of that happen right now.

**Signs Seem Positive After Gerrit Cole’s Rehab Outing. Brian Peloza covered Gerrit Cole’s rehab start with Indianapolis, and talked with him after the outing.

**The Book on Steven Brault. The full scouting report on Steve Brault. This series remains my favorite series to write on the site.

**Mark Melancon Named to NL All-Star Team. Starling Marte is on the final vote, and I’m surprised Gregory Polanco didn’t join him, or didn’t make the team outright.

**Prospect Watch: Gerrit Cole Looks Solid in Rehab Outing. Tonight’s reports throughout the system, with a live one from Indianapolis.

**Jung Ho Kang Under Investigation in Chicago For Sexual Assault. I’d rather not comment on this story in any way, instead just letting all of the details come out, and letting that add everything to the story.

**Austin Meadows Working Through a Slight Injury With Indianapolis. Brian Peloza talked with Dean Treanor about why Meadows has been out of the lineup recently, being told that it’s a minor injury.

**Minor Moves: Austin Meadows to the Disabled List. Meadows was later placed on the DL, and removed from the Future’s Game.

**Jameson Taillon to Disabled List, Steven Brault Called Up, Stallings DFA’d. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose Stallings via waivers. I’d like to see him stick around, because it would help the Pirates with their catching depth. At the same time, I’d like to see him get claimed, just because I think he’d have a much better opportunity elsewhere, rather than being stuck behind Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, and Elias Diaz, with Reese McGuire right behind him.

**Morning Report: Thoughts on the Remaining Unsigned Draft Picks. John Dreker reviews the unsigned picks with about ten days before the deadline.

  • Ok, not saying this because we are rolling, but could this be the year? Not saying we catch the Cubs… but could this be the year where we get into the wildcard game, win, and make a lot of noise in the playoffs? Lets look at the teams who we could play in the wildcard games and also the most likely starter.

    Dodgers – Kershaw… ok he is scary but at the same time, he hasn’t been lights out in the playoffs and he also might be breaking down a little bit due to him pitching as much as he has been. Odds: Even
    Cardinals – who they would start? Your guess is as good as mine. Would I favor us? To be honest, I think this is the same as the dodgers. Odds: Even
    Marlins – Fernandez. To be honest, I think I am more scared of Fernandez then I am any other starter on this list. He has beat us consistently and he is amazing. Only issue with him… TJ surgery and could be limited? Odds: Marlins
    Mets – Again, I have no idea who they would start. Either way… I would still favor the Pirates. Odds: Pirates

    So looking at the total. It doesn’t look like we have the best odds to win the wildcard game, but a lot of it comes down to hot pitchers at the right time. I like Cole a lot. I think he is a great starter, but I still don’t see the Ace numbers that I thought we would see by now. He has a great arsenal, an attitude that he will win no matter what, and a workhorse feel, but he tends to make mistakes more than I would say an Ace would make. Either way, we shall see how the rest of the season goes, but I would say the Pirates are a scary team right now. Glad they are putting it together!

  • pantherfan83
    July 6, 2016 9:45 am

    Glasnow time!!!!!! We’re going to run out of prospects…

  • Love the tattoo on Brault’s right arm. I thought he looked good. He was dancing around the zone and the ump had a low strike zone. His off-speed stuff looked sharp. He seems to be exactly what I thought he would be – a better version of Jeff Locke.

    • The kid has some nice art on that right arm for sure. I thought when he was throwing his fastball in the zone up and away the Cards had a really hard time making contact. In general, I was really surprised how well Brault’s fastball played when he threw it for strikes.

  • dgarshaw@gmail.com
    July 6, 2016 8:49 am

    Bring up Bell

    bring up Bell

    Bring up Bell

    • to the tune of “Jingle Bells”???, if so work on the last sentence 🙂 🙂

  • The Cole of last year was Pirates most “reliable” SP. This season, Cole has not been their most reliable SP due to injury primarily, but also in performance, too.

    Let’s hope Cole turns into the most reliable SP Tim claims he’s been in the 2nd half of the season.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    July 6, 2016 7:57 am

    What a concept….a team actually using their prospects and getting a spark and good results. Who would have thought….
    It continues to crack me up to hear the narrative “Glasnow isn’t ready” still, when guys like Taillon, Kuhl and Brault have all been called up and have been pretty good – at a minimum, better than what we were getting out of the prior rotation. Glasnow has been absolutely dominant at AAA – all season long – and if he isn’t ready, there isn’t one minor league pitcher who is ready, whatever ready actually means.
    The Pirates have an opportunity to get back in this race, but in order to do so they need to stop holding on to the status quo and trust their young guys. How many teams in baseball can bring up 3-4 pitchers like Taillon, Glasnow, Kuhl, and Brault? They are very fortunate. Guys like Frazier and Bell can be big difference makers in the second half – and they will be needed, because Kang may not be playing for a while – and even if he does, I don’t see how his performance will not be impacted by the cloud hanging over his head. They can put Freese at third, and platoon Jaso and Bell at first base. Maybe a DuRapau, Neverauskas, or Lakind can help the bullpen in the second half?
    The Pirates have an embarrassing number of very good young players at AAA and AA – I’ve seen most of them play more than once. Several of them can help this team – they don’t need to keep turning to the Lobsteins, Boscans, Rogers, etc.

    • For whatever my opinion is worth, on Glasnow…. I think they do have the ‘handle with kid gloves’ view with him… I think it is because there seems to be a difference with him in ‘makeup’ then the other three and his upside is so compelling that they don’t want to rush that and risk any setback… I assume they aren’t waiting because they want to lose games on purpose as they view him as ready (kidding), again just my two cents 🙂

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        July 6, 2016 8:39 am

        Well, if he continues to pitch like he has been, and the team continues to falter and flounder around .500 for the next month, then we know that the real answer is – it’s long term control and not about winning now…

        • Hi, he certainly seems to be “checking” the boxes, wouldn’t be surprised to see him in 2nd/3rd/4th week of July, I was just opining on reasons for taking additional time with him…. Pretty soon this Glasnow to MLB discussion will go away, seems like all will be thankful….

  • Brault will be a better starter than Kuhl. His stuff looked much better at next level. Only 1 start and SSS but I think his K% in Triple A indicates as much as well.

  • Yes they have given a boost. Adam Frazier has IMO been a pleasant surprise. The “Cardinal Factor” is at work here and it’s nice seeing a positive improvement. Imagine when Cutch goes on a tear and Hughes finds himself again. It will be like earlier in the season too many options and not enough spots. I could see a trade of some of the excess for either a couple of prospects or high AAA level prospects. In praise of NH – the Freese signing was very big given the issues with Kang. You have two AL games against the Mariners latter part of July so maybe they could get Bell up for some AB’S. The starters who have been called up have been slightly above average but this maybe how they are used. Low pitch counts and keeping it simple. Taillon has had really one dominate performance. I think that all the hype we hear about these guys when they do come up we expect them to throw shutout innings and forget they are competing with the best. Each start hopefully will be a building block.

    • At the time, I was kinda ‘meh’ with the Freese signing, but he’s been very good and certainly the thoughts of trading him have gone ‘poof’.

      Bell made his 10th error last night. At least he gives an effort and works at improving. Makes it easier to live with than last years version of a 1B.

    • Those games against the Mariners are home games though.

    • If Hughes never pitches another game for the Pirates, it’ll be too soon.

  • Pitcher A

    Worst 4 starts 22.1 IP 26 H 15 R 14 ER 10 BB 18 K 5.64 ERA
    Rest of starts 46 IP 44 H 10 R 7 ER 10 BB 37 K 1.37 ERA

    Pitcher B

    Worst 4 starts 17 IP 37 H 32 R 32 ER 10 BB 10 K 16.94 ERA
    Rest of starts 77.2 IP 61 H 23 R 22 ER 21 BB 39 K 2.55 ERA

    Yes, they’re Cole and Locke respectively. Cole’s stats are for 12 starts, Locke’s for 16. Cole has been a true ace for 2/3 of his starts, but he has averaged less than 6 IP per start in those 8 starts. Locke has been very good in 12 of his 16 starts, and (a) has gone deeper into games, and (b) has won 8 of the 12 against only 1 loss. Cole is 5-1 in his 8 good starts and has, of course missed 4 starts already.

    Cole is our “best” starter, but I think the numbers above suggest that Locke has been more reliable. It’s just that Locke’s bad games are beyond bad, while Cole has the stuff to limit damage when things go wrong.

    • Boy those four “worst” starts is a compelling differential… Locke certainly has done very good in the “rest of the starts” but difficult for me, just me, to ignore the entire picture. I guess Locke has been more reliable simply because of health and taking the ball each turn, not an option for Cole, of course… but certainly we all agree that Cole is more reliable based on games he was able to pitch, I like to state the obvious 🙂 🙂

    • He’s not outstanding due to his bad starts, but that 2.55 ERA gets your attention, as does his IP. FWIW, I think he’s stronger pitching at PNC too.

    • burgh…I’ve been posting those Locke stats for some time (even before Wehner mentioned them in the game). He might finally be turning the corner to being a (gasp) #3 starter?

      • piraterican21
        July 6, 2016 9:53 am

        He needs what Kuhl, Brault and all those pitchers that have the back end label placed on then, a put out pitch. I’ve been impressed with Locke’s control and command this season, but he needs and better breaking pitch.

        • Exactly, his K rate is far too low to be a mid-rotation guy. Too dependent on inducing weak contact, which against teams that can mash is just asking for trouble.

          I’ll happily take the results, and would keep him in the rotation, but he still only profiles as a #5 for me.

  • well brault ,fast ball look good, change and slider ,cutter were up in the zone some. But over all he looked good.

  • I have favored bringing up the kids for a long time now because they do come with that type of youthful enthusiasm that can spark a team. The Pirates had gone from a youthful team to a “veteran” team almost overnight. And, there are others presently at AAA who can also help this 2016 Pirate team. Brault looked good last night – not overwhelmed.

    Until yesterday I thought that the AS Break would see a lot of wheeling and dealing from the Pirates, but then the news out of Chicago may have kicked that in the butt

    • Is Fraizer embarrassing the other pirates? He is showing more hustle than anyone not named Harrison.

  • Really liked Brault yesterday and see him for sure as a part of the rotation.

    • I wanna hear him sing and play guitar before I pass final judgment.

      Actually, it kinda sounds like a former “electric” pitcher that we had?

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