PITTSBURGH – In 2017, the Pirates used just seven starting pitchers and had five players take 25 starts or more as the rotation went through a period of solid health compared to the league-wide average. Only Jameson Taillon’s cancer diagnosis kept a Pirates starter from taking his regular turn physically a year ago.
In 2018, the Pirates have had to shuffle their rotation before it’s even gone all the way through once. Fifth starter Joe Musgrove was placed on the 10-day disabled list on Monday with a right shoulder muscle strain. Musgrove had not yet pitched this season and was slated to make his debut on Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds.
Musgrove’s throwing progression during the spring didn’t go smoothly as he tried to ramp things up to get ready for the season and it was discomfort in the same shoulder that led to him starting the process over once already in camp. Because that slowed down his progress, Musgrove threw in a minor-league game at Pirate City on Saturday to get in his final tune-up, and the reports immediately after his 92-pitch outing were positive.
Musgrove said himself in the Pirates clubhouse at PNC Park on Monday that he was feeling good and ready to go, but after a consultation with the team’s physical staff and director of sport medicine Todd Tomczyk, Musgrove landed on the disabled list.
“After Saturday’s outing, Joe reported that he just didn’t recover like he wanted to,” Tomczyk said. “We got him re-evaluated by our medical staff, our director of medial services, Dr. Patrick DeMeo. What we found is the muscle strain. This is an acute injury. It’s going to require a short period of rest.”
Tomczyk went on to say that Musgrove felt he could have pitched through the injury, but the training staff, front office, Musgrove, and manager Clint Hurdle got together on Monday and decided it was in everyone’s best interest to not push things and risk further injury.
Musgrove won’t throw for five to seven days. At that point, he will have to re-enter his pitching progression in order to get built back up to six innings and 100 pitches before he’s ready to start a game.
Lefty Steven Brault will start on Thursday in Musgrove’s place. After Thursday, the Pirates won’t need a fifth starter again until April 15.
The Pirates have only announced probable pitchers as far as Thursday, but it stands to reason that Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams will pitch in some combination on Friday and Saturday after pitching in a doubleheader on Sunday. Taillon will then likely go on the fourth game against the Reds on Sunday, with Ivan Nova starting the series with the Cubs on Monday. The Pirates have an off day in Chicago on April 10, allowing the rotation to run through again until the final game of that six-game road trip in Miami on April 15, when either Musgrove will be able to make his return or another spot start will be needed.
Because he won’t be needed for some time in the rotation, Brault could return to the bullpen after making his spot start, along with recently recalled right-hander Clay Holmes, to give the Pirates a nine-man bullpen, or the Pirates could send Holmes back to Indianapolis and recall another position player to restore a five-man bench.
That second option might need to be exercised sooner rather than later, as shortstop Jordy Mercer is also on the mend. Mercer injured his right pinky finger sliding back into second base on Monday.
X-rays taken were negative for a fracture, and Tomczyk called Mercer “day-to-day.” Mercer said the next step will be getting the swelling to go down enough for him to get a bat in his hands. Sean Rodríguez replaced Mercer in the field on Monday and would be the most likely player to replace him if he misses time. If the Pirates recall someone from Triple-A with the shortstop position in mind, it would likely be Max Moroff, with youngsters Kevin Kramer and Kevin Newman also possible options.