BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates made their first wave of cuts this afternoon from big league camp, sending down six prospects. The group included Kevin Newman, Jin-De Jhang, and four pitchers, led by Nick Kingham. All of the moves were inevitable, since none of the prospects sent out today had a shot to make the team. Some members of the pitching group could help this year, but they’re having to battle with a lot of depth options who are still in camp.
“With each of the pitchers, none of them did anything to deserve to get sent out of camp,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “It just became a matter of innings with guys that are in competition to make our Major League team.”
The best takeaway from camp is that Nick Kingham is healthy, and could be a second half option for the Pirates as depth in his return from Tommy John surgery. Kingham has worked in the offseason with Jameson Taillon, trying to follow the same return that Taillon made last year. He might not provide the same impact, but could be one of the best depth options for the Pirates when he is eventually ready.
“I’m leaving just as healthy as I came in, is the biggest thing for me,” Kingham said. “Good experience. Get used to the guys. Throwing in front of the right eyes. That was huge for me. Just get comfortable with getting on a pitching routine again, and taking the ball every five days. Just get back into the baseball swing again. Normal Spring Training, so it was good to just come in and experience something normal again.”
Kingham getting sent down now is about getting him innings and getting him stretched out for the Triple-A season. That’s the main thing he will work on during minor league camp, although he will get a chance to experiment a bit with his game. I reported last week that he’s looking to make the two-seam fastball his primary fastball. Minor league Spring Training games are more flexible, allowing for a pitcher to get pulled mid-inning, then get sent back out to the mound for the next frame (rolling an inning). This allows more opportunity to work on things, which could benefit Kingham and the two-seamer.
“I think it’s going to take a lot of stress off of me,” Kingham said of going down to the minors. “If god forbid it happens, we’re allowed to roll innings over there. So I can just start throwing the two-seam in any count I want, and not worry about getting an out or I’m getting pulled. I don’t know how bad that sounds when I say that, but it takes a little stress off, and I can just work on getting better over there. I think that’s a good thing.”
The switch to a two-seam fastball is also a move that Taillon made last year before he arrived in the majors. He had better movement and the same velocity with the pitch, and that made the transition a no-brainer. Kingham also has better movement and similar velocity, which is why he’s attempting the same switch. That just further leads to a comparison of Taillon’s situation last year. However, Kingham’s situation will be much different, not only in terms of having a lower upside than Taillon, but having more competition.
“A little bit of a different situation that our numbers are stronger this year, but we absolutely believe that Nick can help us at some point this season,” Huntington said. “Continued refinement, continued recognition of when and how to use his stuff efficiently and effectively. Pitching to a game plan, recognizing swings, making adjustments on the mound, using his fastball to both halves is going to be important to him. But he is a guy that we do believe will help us at some point this year. Not setting a time frame on him, but believe with his continued growth and development, he’ll definitely be a guy who can come up and make a start if need be. But we also have a handful of other guys who can do the same thing.”
Some of those other guys who could be depth options were sent out with Kingham. Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, and Cody Dickson were all sent down today, which isn’t a surprise, as none of them have pitched above Altoona. Holmes was optioned to Indianapolis, and should round out the rotation there. Eppler and Dickson might be held back, just due to the numbers game.
“We’ll see where it all ends up at the end of Spring Training, depending on the moves that we make at the Major League level,” Huntington said on who could return to Altoona. “Excited about all of those guys. Want them to dominate their controllables and put themselves in position to earn that next opportunity. But if there’s somebody ahead of them, then they will get pushed back. If Eppler or Dickson do go to Double-A, the idea would be to have them in the rotation. So it’s a combination of depth, opportunity, and what we feel is the right thing for them.”
Just for the sake of argument, if we project a fourth and fifth starter combo of Chad Kuhl and Drew Hutchison at the start of the year, that would create an Indianapolis rotation of Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, Kingham, and Holmes. That puts a lot of starters in front of Eppler and Dickson this year. They weren’t really expected to make the team this year for that reason, so today wasn’t a surprise for them.
“It always sucks no matter where you are to get sent down to minor league camp,” Dickson said. “Make the best of it. It’s my first Spring Training, so it was a pleasure. Got to meet a lot of great guys and get comfortable with them. Take it from here and hopefully see them back in Pittsburgh pretty soon. … I’m just going to keep going out there and do my thing. I can’t really control where I end up. Just going to trust my stuff and keep working hard, and try to get up to the next level and the next level until I’m up in the big leagues.”
In order for Dickson or Eppler to make it up this year, they would probably have to transition to the bullpen at some point. The same could be true of Holmes. The Pirates might opt to do that for short-term bullpen depth — just like they did with Trevor Williams at the end of the 2016 season — but they are still high on these three pitchers to have a shot at being starters in the majors. Thus, you can expect all of them to get innings in the minor league rotation, with Eppler and Dickson moving up to Indianapolis when spots open.
Just like the pitchers were running out of innings, the position players were running out of at-bats. Newman told me he will start the year in Altoona, which means his chances of reaching the majors this year might be slim. As a result, the Pirates are now giving their innings and at-bats at shortstop to guys who have a chance to be the second and third string shortstops in Pittsburgh this year. Newman said that he looked forward to getting more at-bats in minor league camp.
“Up here, I was definitely able to get my work in,” Newman said. “I got my ground balls in, my cage work in BP and everything. I was able to do pretty much everything here. It’s just a matter of more reps down there will be the biggest difference.”
When asked about what Newman needs to work on, Huntington repeated the word “refinement” of his game over and over. Newman said that the team had good parting words for him about where he was at with his game, and that he enjoyed the time he spent learning in MLB camp. Huntington’s comments gave a little bit more of a picture of what Newman needs to do going forward.
“The refining his offensive approach, driving the ball as he did when he was here in Bradenton,” Huntington said, referencing Newman’s results last year. “He can find gaps in the outfield. He can find outfield grass as well as anybody we have in camp. Jokingly called him a hit collector. Matt Hague was here yesterday, he might have been the original hit collector. But Kevin also has the ability to drive the ball. We didn’t talk about lifting the ball, we talked about driving the ball and keeping the outfielders honest. Finding gaps, using the whole field. Defensively, it’s going to come down to first step quickness for him and the ability to improve that. It’s good, but it can be better, and that will enhance his range. He’s reliable, he’s steady, he’s accurate with his arm. He has enough arm strength.”
Huntington said that the move from Double-A to Triple-A and Triple-A to the majors is as much about opportunity as need. There doesn’t seem to be anyone blocking Newman from moving up to Triple-A when he’s ready, but his move to the big leagues will be determined by when he can take over for Jordy Mercer. He will eventually get to that point, but it probably won’t be in 2017. As for his 2017 progression, Newman wants to move up to Indianapolis as soon as possible.
“Obviously to get moved up as soon as you can is the goal all the time,” Newman said. “Whatever they decide and however they see it is up to them. For me, in the back of my head, a timetable — ideally at or before the All-Star break. But I don’t want to put that pressure on myself. I’m just going to go out there and do what I can, and control what I can control.”
As for whether he has a goal of reaching the majors this year…
“Who wouldn’t?” Newman said. “But in terms of putting that stress on myself, trying to really push to somewhere that’s out of my control, it doesn’t really do me any good. So I’m just going to try and go out there every day and compete and play to the best of my abilities and we’ll see what happens.”
The Pirates have traded a few of their minor league catchers in the last year. The most notable trade came when they sent out Reese McGuire. They also traded Taylor Gushue for Chris Bostick. The flip side to these deals is that it created a starting role for Jin-De Jhang in Altoona, making this the first opportunity he has to be a regular starter in the minors and develop his game.
Huntington discussed what the Pirates see in Jhang behind the plate, noting that the continued focus on his English and his blocking are two things to focus on.
“We like the way he receives,” Huntington said. “We’ve got some work to do blocking. Again, his English is better than it’s ever been, but the communication and the ability to connect and lead a staff is going to be important for him. We love the way he swings the bat. But with continued refinement, receiving-wise, his receiving metrics are actually strong, internally. There’s always some work that can be done, the blocking better. But we do like the way he swings the bat, and obviously continued advancement English-wise, so he can lead a staff. We like him a lot.”
Jhang is interesting because of his ability to make contact, rating as the best pure hitting catcher in the system. He also has the potential for some power, and there are some good defensive skills, as Huntington indicated. He’s been stuck behind Reese McGuire for most of his career, so this year will really give him some good development time, and give a better indication of what kind of catcher he can be, and whether he can reach the majors.