PITTSBURGH — Pirates lefty Steven Brault spent the entirety of Spring Training working as a starting pitcher.
That made sense, after all. Brault has been a starter for almost all of his professional career. Of his 128 career professional appearances, 116 of the them have come as a starter.
But for almost the entire spring, while Brault was getting ready as a starter, he knew that he was likely going to start the 2018 season in the Pirates’ bullpen.
The Pirates set the starting rotation before Spring Training games even began, with Joe Musgrove joining returning starters Chad Kuhl, Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, and Trevor Williams. The plan, then, was to have Brault, along with Tyler Glasnow, start the season in the bullpen, not with the intention of making them into full-time relievers, but with the idea that it’s easier to start a career in the bullpen than it is making the jump from Triple-A to the majors as a starter.
Neal Huntington has said in the past that he believes the gulf in talent between Triple-A and the majors has continued to widen as teams have eschewed minor-league veterans for more prospects and Asian leagues have plucked the best veterans for contracts that pay much more than the minor leagues do. Glasnow is probably the best example of that, as he’s dominated Triple-A over the last two seasons, but had an ERA approaching seven in the big leagues.
“In the 70s and even into the 80s, you served an apprenticeship in the bullpen most of the time before you became a major-league starter,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “It’s a lot easier to get guys up three outs at a time than it is for 21, 24 or 27.”
The Pirates have a perfect in-house example of that process in Trevor Williams, who started 2017 in the bullpen, got promoted to the rotation when Taillon was diagnosed with cancer, and pitched so well that he kept his spot at the expense of Glasnow when Taillon returned.
“Any time guys have success, they set the tone,” Huntington said. “They can answer questions about how guys have done it. It’s a good spot to be.”
Brault and Williams are about as close as anyone on the team, though they have their fair share of disagreements. The Spring Training roommates spent a lot of hours together this spring, so there was plenty of time for Brault to pick Williams’ brain about the process.
“We have talked about it a bunch this spring,” Brault said.
Williams pitched as a long reliever, working in situations where the Pirates were usually behind after a shortened outing by the Pirates’ starter. In fact, he spent a few long stretches not pitching at all if that situation didn’t arise.
So none of Williams advice would have mattered that much for Brault when he got his first relief appearance of the year on Opening Day, in extra innings on the road. Brault came into the game in relief of Josh Smoker in the 11th inning and pitched three scoreless innings of baseball, when any run would have won the marathon game for the Tigers and dealt his team a huge blow. No amount of experience anywhere can really prepare a player for that kind of pressure.
“It was really new to me, but I’ve always thought I’ve been more of a learn-by-doing kind of a guy,” Brault said. “I think it was good to just kinda get thrown into the fire. It was just, ‘You have to be successful now. Right now. Or we’re going to lose this game.’ I think it just put me in the right mindset.”
Brault seemed to have that part of the game and was one of the few players in the Pirates bullpen to impress over the opening weekend in Detroit. The positive start had Brault excited for his future in the bullpen.
“I think it’s huge, mentality-wise,” he said. “Anybody that says to you that they don’t look at their numbers is lying. Everybody does. So, it’s nice to start with that.”
Then, just like that, Brault’s plans all got changed again. When Musgrove landed on the disabled list on Monday with a right shoulder strain, Brault was tapped to start on Thursday. The bouncing back and forth probably won’t bother the level-headed 25-year-old.
But now, after a month of pitching as a starter but thinking he was going to the bullpen, and a week of actually pitching out of the bullpen, Brault is getting dragged back to a starting pitching role — for now.
“It’s called flexibility,” he said. “Can you have flexibility and can you be used at different things? I’ve always been a routine guy, so for me, no matter what, there’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment period. But that’s OK. I am flexible.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wouldn’t commit to any plans for Brault beyond Thursday. The Pirates won’t need a fifth starter again until April 15. A situation like this was the reason that Hurdle insisted on getting Brault and Glasnow stretched out before the Pirates broke camp.
“The first opportunity was pitching out of the pen, and then as happens many times, you go to Plan B much quicker than anticipated,” Hurdle said. “Plan A didn’t have a lot of shelf life.”