I’ve written a lot in the past few weeks about how the Pirates have an excess of starting pitchers in the upper levels. I had ten possible candidates for the Indianapolis rotation, along with more starters than spots in Altoona. There will be three ways the Pirates can relieve this depth:
2. Converting Starters to Relievers
3. Expanding Beyond Five Rotation Spots
With the depth they have, all three options will be on the table. They can convert some guys to relief, but that will be limited, as they have legit relief prospects taking up some of the bullpen spots. They can go with more than five starters, but that just means one of those bullpen spots will go to the extra starter. And there will still be starting options left over, which they have handled in the past by trading some of the depth away.
We might get some answers on the potential trades next week. We’ll get answers on who will move to the bullpen in Spring Training.
As for the extra starters, that plan is already in the works, and is something the Pirates did this past year. Throughout the system, they had all of their starters taking regular breaks, skipping a start to pitch out of the bullpen. It sounds like that process will increase this year, based on my conversations last month with Larry Broadway and Justin Meccage.
“We had six or seven [rotation options] this year [in Indianapolis], and were able to rotate guys through, give them a blow, and then get them in the pen and give them some difference experience,” Broadway said about the 2017 season. “Ideally, we’re able to continue to do that and have more than five starters in each spot.”
When I asked whether they would increase this practice over last year, Broadway said “it depends on the guy.” The decision would be based on where players are in their development cycle, and how their innings are going.
We heard feedback from starters at all levels this past year, and the practice of having starters skip a start and go to the bullpen wasn’t popular. Starters are used to routines, and that would break up their routines in a big way. The goal for the Pirates is to give the player some experience out of the bullpen early, so that if they ever make the switch in the future, they won’t be pitching in relief for the first time. Meccage brought up a recent example where the lack of bullpen experience hurt.
“When you really think about the game, you don’t know where a guy is going to be in the big leagues,” Meccage said. “Whether he’s a bullpen guy, or a starter with us, or a starter with someone else. I think it’s a good thing that we have this. I think it’s a huge positive. Our guys are going to be more prepared when they get to the big leagues. A lot of these guys have never pitched out of the bullpen, like Brault.”
Brault got his first extended experience in the bullpen this year in Pittsburgh. He didn’t have great results in either starter or relief roles, but it’s not hard to argue against the idea that the majors is a bad place to get your first experience out of the bullpen.
Getting guys experience out of the bullpen as they move up will help to get early experience. But the reality is the Pirates will need to make the switch to the bullpen full-time before the player reaches the majors. That’s something that you can expect to happen more often in 2018, as they have too many starters for the rotation, even with a six or seven man rotation where guys get the occasional break to pitch out of the bullpen.