Chad Kuhl tied an MLB career high in innings pitched (seven) and matched a career low in hits allowed (one) during his outstanding start Sunday at Milwaukee, helping the Pirates improve to 4-0 in series against National League Central teams this season.
Beyond the team context, which is obviously important, it’s valid to wonder if Kuhl saved his spot in the starting rotation by delivering in the rubber match against the Brewers.
First of all, there’s a man by the name of Nick Kingham who’s knocking on the door to get more regular Major League duty. To say Kingham impressed in his two starts before being sent to Triple-A to stay on his routine would be an understatement.
Following a historic big-league debut against the Cardinals on April 29, retiring the first 20 batters he faced, Kingham might’ve actually been better Friday night at Miller Park, even though his final stat line (5 1/3 innings, six hits, four runs) didn’t indicate it.
During his weekly interview with Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown on 93.7 The Fan, Neal Huntington raved about Kingham’s improved command and feel for the tactics of the game in his second Pirates start.
“He did it differently,” Huntington said. “He was more slider-heavy against the Cardinals. Against Milwaukee, he was attacking (with the fastball) down and in, up and in, down and away. He used the changeup more against Milwaukee than St. Louis. The maturity and the ability to use different pitches in different counts bodes very well for Nick.”
Apparently not well enough to keep him in the majors full-time, but as I wrote Sunday, the plentiful off days over the next two weeks allow the Pirates to roll with four starters for the time being.
But why not go with Kingham over Kuhl for at least one more turn? Perhaps the Pirates were internally debating that, since Kingham was kept with the club Sunday before being sent down in favor of José Osuna for the upcoming interleague series in Chicago.
Then, Kuhl went out and posted a Game Score of 81, the highest of his 52 starts with the Pirates over the past three seasons. Not enough to totally polish up an average first seven starts (4.12 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 1.30 WHIP), but enough to remind that Kuhl can’t be written off as a bullpen candidate just yet.
Huntington allowed that Kuhl’s current position isn’t as ironclad as, say, Jameson Taillon’s or Trevor Williams’, but he emphasized the Pirates are comfortable being patient with the intense young man from Delaware.
“He has weapons to get major-league hitters out as a starter,” Huntington said. “He has weapons to get major-league hitters out as a reliever. As a club, you never want to give up on someone who has a chance to be a starter too quickly. At the same time, we’ve got to put ourselves in a position to win baseball games. There are really good relievers who were marginal starters and became really good relievers.”
Suppose that’s always an option for Kuhl, but we can argue he’s earned some benefit of the doubt through his time with the Pirates. For every mediocre outing, like the short one in Washington last week, there’s been an above-average performance to provide counterbalance.
The problem for Kuhl (and Kingham, for that matter) is that the Pirates seem determined to carve out space for Joe Musgrove to enter the rotation when his ailing shoulder is back to full strength. As our Sean McCool covered Monday night in Altoona, Musgrove is theoretically only one rehab start away from being ready for his maiden Pirates voyage.
In fact, if we ballpark it, Musgrove could be up with the Pirates by May 26, which is coincidentally the next time the Pirates will need a regular fifth starting pitcher. So, there’s a crunch upcoming, although Huntington reminded his radio audience that sometimes these situations can work themselves out, even if the inexperienced player gets squeezed initially.
“Good teams need multiple starter options,” Huntington said. “I think the average playoff team (last season) used nine guys to start games. We’ll continue to utilize those guys.”
If we assume Musgrove will be ready when expected, then it really does come down to Kuhl vs. Kingham. There’s been no shortage of praise from Pirates brass for the newcomer, so it very well might’ve been that Kuhl solidified his role by dominating the Brewers on Sunday.
Then again, maybe that’s oversimplifying, given the Pirates’ outward desire to give Kuhl every shot to stick as a starter.
“We believe he has the ability to be a starting pitcher,” Huntington said. “That’s what gets lost in a bad outing here or there.”