What Will the Pirates Do With All of Their Starting Pitching Depth in Indianapolis?

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:

1. Trades

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.

  • Trevor Williams had a 3.96 era as a starter in 2017. Jordan Montgomery had a 3.88 era as a starter and was widely considered the best rookie starter in the AL. Perhaps it’s time to be more optimistic about Williams. He has good velocity, control, and mindset.

  • Dumb question but don’t all major league teams have 5 starters in their AAA rotations?
    What makes the Pirates different in regards to depth?

    • Eppler
      Sadler
      Kingham
      Glasnow
      Brault
      Holmes

      With:

      Coley
      Waddell
      Brubaker
      Anderson (maybe…can’t remember if he’s in the BP now)

      All pretty much ready to come up from AA…with Keller, possibly, good enough to make it by midseason. That’s, potentially, 11 guys fighting for five slots.

      There’s an abundance of depth there…little of it very exciting outside of Glasnow and Keller, but most of it good enough to get to the majors in some capacity.

  • i really just want to see them be the first MLB team to try piggybacking…

    i dont know if it would work, but i just want to see something new.

    • spitballing what it could look like…

      Cole and Taillon pitch regularly. Nova/Williams. Kuhl / Kingham. Glasnow / Brault. Bullpen of Rivero, Kontos, Hudson, and a Turley who can go multiple innings.

      • Wabbit_Season
        December 8, 2017 1:19 am

        Yep. There you go. Wanna change your situation? Pitch like an ace and get out of the piggy back role.

        I think it makes excellent sense. And the way I’d do it is pitch Cole’s start between the Nova/Williams and Kuhl/Kingham and put Taillon between the Kuhl/Kingham and Glasnow / Brault. This would even out your bullpen use, I think, and keep as many arms available as possible.

        “I knew I shouldda taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”
        -Wabbit

      • LLOYD thinks this can possibly work. But your setup is to dangerous with the chance that Glasnow and Brault could both have very short outings and screw up the pen for weeks. LLOYD would prefer that those two would each start a game with maybe Kingham and Williams as their piggies……

    • then again, if nobody’s done it yet then it probably just sucks too much for the players.

      • Wabbit_Season
        December 8, 2017 1:21 am

        There ya go, Jay. Baseball is funny that way because of such ingrained doctrinal thinking. The guys would be probably the biggest stumbling block to such a plan. But I bet if it worked you’d get a much deeper pitching team and much healthier arms over the season and career.

        “I’ll do it. But I’ll hate myself in the morning.
        -Wabbit

  • As we’ve seen, many marginal starters can become lights-out relievers. I’m surprised they’ve waited this long to convert some of the AAAA guys to relief to see what they can do. Guys like Hughes, Watson, Morris were converted to RP in AA. Justin Wilson was a SP all through the minors and then went right to the ‘pen, so maybe that is what they will do with some of their guys.

  • tim: Thank you for your upbeat approach. But the franchise did nothing to improve the coaching staff, and they just seem to be willing to wait for some other GM to call and ask for a specific pitcher in trade.

    NH started out as a guy willing to make a tough decision when it came to trading talent to receive better talent that might have been a few years down the road. Regardless of our losing records the past two seasons, we still think we are able to win the division by standing pat. The inactivity on the Intl Market is just more proof that we are satisfied and unwilling to take an aggressive approach.

  • I think Brault and Kuhl would both be very good relief pitchers, and ultimately I think that’s where they need to end up to get the most value out of them. Either can be a useful starter (Kuhl already is), but they could be shut-down guys in shorter outings.

    I don’t know what to do with Glasnow, but maybe he’s also destined for the pen. Hopefully something clicks, because he’d be a big boost to the rotation if he at all puts it together.

    But if they’re looking to upgrade the lineup, this is where they need to trade from.

    • I think you keep going with Glasnow as a starter. He’s not stagnating; in his last stint at AAA he had a stretch of control better than he’s ever done at any level. And, tall guys take longer. So, you keep going, too much upside to give up.

      That said, if he ends up in the pen I think he’ll still have value there.

      • Wabbit_Season
        December 8, 2017 1:14 am

        Agree Arik.

        I think Randy Johnson was a late bloomer too, right, before he figured it all out?

        You can’t give up on Glasnow.

        ————————————-
        “Dragons is so stupid.”
        -Wabbit

  • A wise GM would package and trade.

    Aside from Glasnow, the guys in the Indy rotation mix are not that different, in terms of ceilings, than Williams and Kuhl. To complicate it, aside from Keller at AA, most of the guys getting close to AAA are pretty much the same.

    Yeah, it’s nice to have pitching depth, even if it’s guys who will, probably, just hold down the back end of a rotation. But the Pirates are saturated with it. It’s time to deal from a position of strength to cover the weaknesses.

    • I was thinking about this with the Garcia rumor. The Pirates could trade Kuhl or Williams. Teams are always looking to improve the back end of their rotation.

  • I’ll never stop wirh my suggestion that they need 8 starters in a piggyback rotation. No one faces a batting order a third time. Get 4 innings per guy if possible. Makes bullpen guys more effective as they won’t be needed as often. Best thing you can do when you have a ton of depth that isn’t filled with top of the rotation talent.

    • Wabbit_Season
      December 8, 2017 1:11 am

      Silky,

      I’ve been thinking this through for years and have thought that the Bucs are in a position where they could eat up innings and never give an opposing lineup a chance to see a pitcher a third tme.

      The Pirates have been looking into the Golden State kind of “team” where everyone produces and everyone gets a good amount of recovery time. This works in theory in baseball with pitchers too.

      In the grand scheme there are shortfalls. Pitchers who are “starters” feel demoted and in such a situation, you’d be devaluing pitchers. Doing away with aces in a way. But you might be lengthening careers and mitigating injury.

      I too feel like a piggyback situation is best here. Rather than say, Oh, you’re a bullpen guy and what not, you simply have 8 starters and three or four dedicated bullpen arms for special situations like set up and closer.

      Would work and the Bucs would use their money more effectively and develop an edge nobody else enjoys.

      Does anyone know what the MLB average is for pitchers the first time through an order, the second time through and the third time through? It would seem the numbers call for piggybacking and selective use of relief pitchers.

      —————————————
      “Whoa, Dragon! Whoa!!!! When I says whoa, I means WHOA!!!”
      -Wabbit

      • Starters have to go five innnings to get a W. That is what I see as a hang up. Managing it would be tough too. Imagine your starter in a roll and you take him out after the 18th batter. That being said there is nothing stopping a team from doing this with their 4th or 5 th starter. Yet teams don’t do it regularly.

      • I would have to look, but I think you can find that info per pitcher on Fangraphs. It’s not good for most pitchers outside of the very best. With their penchant for developing pitchers with only 2 strong pitches, the piggyback rotation virtually eliminating the third order penalty would do wonders. Also a guy like Kuhl that struggles against the top of a line up could be brought in against a different part of the order to reduce those first inning struggles. The priblem with anything new is truing to get players to buy in. It just makes too much sense with the make up of the organization.

  • And, yet, we may be adding to it by possibly signing Jaime Garcia?

    • piraterican21
      December 7, 2017 2:24 pm

      It’s only a rumor from a source that I have trouble believing has any inside knowledge.

  • Another question. You don’t use the phrase “projectable pitcher” in this article, but you use that phrase a lot elsewhere. What does that mean? I am thinking it means tall, strong, and able to release the ball from a high arm slot – which means a hard thrown pitch released closer to the plate. But is that what it actually means?

    • Projectable is a term for young pitchers that figure to grow into their body and fill out. As they get stronger, conceivably they could throw harder. Not the textbook answer I’m sure.

    • Glasnow is the textbook example of Projectable. He was super tall and Skinny coming out of high school, with a fastball that top out in the high 80’s. The Pirates looked at his frame, and presumed that as he added muscle, they could add velocity.

      It’s not all about frame, as it could be about mechanics to an extent as well. You see guys like JT Brubaker, and other college guys coming in, tall, and not maximizing their potential velocity because of inefficient mechanics.

      In most cases, projectable refers to frame, but can encompass both.

    • That’s a phrase I use in the lower levels. It is typically for younger players who are tall and skinny, and who could add velocity as they add weight and muscle to their frame in the 18-22 ages.

      This has been a common occurrence in the system, with guys like Glasnow, Keller, Holmes, Kingham, and many others who were drafted out of high school throwing in the upper 80s to low 90s, and who then increased to the mid-to-upper 90s. As J Nader points out, it also happened with college guys like JT Brubaker and Chad Kuhl, to name two examples.

  • Are teams allowed to have more than one minor league team at a level? More teams would mean more rotation spots. Got to be a rule against that though?

    • There isn’t a rule against it, although the cost would be pretty big, and the benefit isn’t strong, since you’re trying to find rotation spots for your worst starting prospects — guys who will probably eventually move to the bullpen anyway. Paying a lot to delay the inevitable.

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