Immediately following Sunday’s series finale at Milwaukee, the Pirates will have four of the next 15 days off. That’ll be their most idle two-week stretch of the season that doesn’t include the MLB all-star break.
Because of this quirk in the schedule, the Pirates can afford to get more creative than usual with their 25-man roster, since a fifth starting pitcher in the rotation won’t be necessary again until Saturday, May 19.
That’s good and bad news for Nick Kingham, who has impressed in his first two starts at this level, but who also figures to head back to Triple-A Indianapolis in the near future.
“Major-League starting pitchers want to stay on their normal (fifth) day,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told broadcaster Greg Brown on 93.7 The Fan before Sunday’s game against the Brewers.
“Sometimes we want them to pitch on their sixth day, but once you get to the seventh or eighth or ninth day, it becomes harder to keep that feel.”
That goes for Kingham as much as Iván Nova, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl. The Pirates aren’t going to want Kingham to stagnate after posting a 2.92 ERA in 12 1/3 innings with the Pirates, plus a 1.59 in 22 2/3 innings for Indy.
So while Kingham could be back in the bigs as soon as two weeks from now, the coming nine games presents an opportunity to roll with four starting pitchers and call up an additional bench player for Clint Hurdle.
After absorbing Huntington’s weekly interview, it seems likely to this writer that José Osuna could be on his way to Chicago on Tuesday for the start of a two-game interleague series against the White Sox.
Osuna was arguably the last player left off the Opening Day roster back in late March, but he responded to that disappointment in a professional manner, hitting .355/.407/.618 in 22 Triple-A games. Just as importantly, he’s made just one error in 17 starts at third base, a position the 25-year-old hadn’t played until this winter in his native Venezuela.
“The thought on José was to get him as many innings at third base as possible,” Huntington said Sunday. “It’s a crash course to get him as many innings as he could. He’s become very serviceable over there.”
Furthering Osuna’s cause are the back-to-back starts in right field he received this week, giving him three on the season in Triple-A. The Pirates placed him in right field for his only major-league appearance this year, a start in the back end of a doubleheader April 25 at PNC Park, when the team was permitted to add a 26th player to the roster for the day.
A natural first baseman, Osuna handled that assignment without incident while going 2 for 4 at the plate with a three-run homer. Osuna has played right field in 393 of his 1,019 pro games, but Huntington said throwing him in there last month was “uncomfortable” for the Pirates.
“We’re trying to balance him a little bit more as we prep him to return and be an option for Clint off the bench,” Huntington said. “José continues to be the consummate professional, showing up every day to help us win.”
With the need to fill a designated hitter spot for two games this week, it seems most likely Osuna will be called up to replace Kingham, but it’s not guaranteed. Huntington said the feedback he’s gotten from Hurdle on working with a four-man bench through the first 30-plus games has been overarchingly positive.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of games where Clint felt shorthanded from a pinch-hitting standpoint,” Huntington said. “It’s worked out that the extra arm has allowed him to protect our back-end guys. That’s a good spot for a front office to put a manager.”
Considering the Pirates’ struggles in getting the ball from the starters to Felipe Vásquez — as ably chronicled by our Alan Saunders last week — it wouldn’t be out of the question for the Pirates to add a ninth reliever.
Right-hander Dovydas Neverauskas would be the most likely call-up candidate if Huntington goes with a super-size bullpen, as he has a 2.16 ERA in five Triple-A appearances this season. (Of course, Neverauskas allowed eight runs on 11 hits in 6 2/3 innings with the Pirates last month.) If it’s a lefty the Pirates seek, Josh Smoker has a 2.35 ERA in eight appearances for Indy, with 10 strikeouts against three walks.
Ultimately, adding another pitcher would be more probable if A.J. Schugel didn’t experience a setback and/or Joe Musgrove was further along in his rehab assignment. However, neither man appears ready to don a Pirates cap before the end of this upcoming two-week stretch.
And in case you were wondering, Jung Ho Kang’s early work in Bradenton has been “encouraging,” per Huntington, but the Pirates still plan on giving him four to six weeks before inserting him in “upper-level” minor-league games.
Ultimately, if Kang can regain his aptitude at the plate and the field, that might induce the Pirates to permanently add another position player to Hurdle’s bench. In the meantime, Kingham-for-Osuna seems like the move that fits the Pirates’ needs the best.
“That would be the most basic and the easiest (move),” Huntington said of sending Kingham down, even if it’s temporary. “The nice part is we have positive options. It’s up to us to find the one that works the best.”