The Pirates essentially solved one of their starting pitcher mysteries on Thursday. By re-assigning right-handed starter Nick Kingham from Triple-A Indianapolis to Double-A Altoona, the club will let Kingham start on Monday and stay on a five-day rotation.
Indianapolis is off on Monday, which necessitated the move, and getting Kingham set up to pitch on Monday is important, because five days later, the Pirates will need a fifth starter in the majors for the first time in two turns through the rotation.
So while there hasn’t been an official announcement from the club, it’s pretty safe to assume that Kingham will start Saturday against the San Diego Padres.
But what happens with Kingham is only part of the mystery when it comes to the future of the Pirates starting rotation. Rehabbing right-hander Joe Musgrove made his second minor-league start with Altoona this past Monday. He threw four innings in that appearance after tossing three in his first outing. At that rate of progress, that means that Musgrove will need two more rehab starts to get to the six-inning, 100-pitch benchmark in the minors.
After that, he’s coming to Pittsburgh and getting plugged into the starting rotation, according to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
“He’s going to start for us,” Hurdle said. “Barring any kind of setback, when he’s ready, we’re going to gear him up. He’s got to get to six and 100 at some time and then he can get plugged back in here in the rotation.”
That’s something of an issue because when including Kingham, the Pirates currently have five starters in the five-man rotation, and Kingham has pitched well enough in his first two starts that he probably deserves a continued look. Musgrove pitched out of the bullpen in the second half of last season for Houston, but when the Pirates acquired him, they did so because they think that he’s capable of being a major-league starter.
“All winter we were talking about putting him into the rotation,” Hurdle said. “He’s a guy that we believe through our scouts watching him pitch and through his history, can be a guy to make this move. He has a desire to also take upon this challenge and the accountability and the responsibility that comes with a starting spot.”
I wrote back in the spring about why the Pirates think Musgrove can be a starter, and the reasoning hasn’t changed any.
If Musgrove pitches five innings on Saturday for Indianapolis, which seems likely, that would mean he could get to six and 100 two days before Kingham makes that start on May 19. So when Musgrove is ready, someone is going to have to go.
“So, you need five, sometimes you need more,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, these things take care of themselves along the way as he’s finding his way back, whether somebody else doesn’t pitch well enough to stay in the rotation or something complicates their performance physically, they have a way of working themselves out. Then, sometimes, you need to make hard decisions.”
The Pirates don’t really have someone that’s pitching at such a poor level that they’re deserving of replacement at the current moment. Ivan Nova has a rotation-worst 4.84 ERA, but his 3.81 xFIP suggests that should normalize to something approaching his last two years of an ERA around 4.15. By xFIP, Trevor Williams has been their worst starter, with a 4.96 mark, but he has the best ERA at 3.13.
If everything goes as planned, this is shaping up as a tough decision for the Pirates. There isn’t a starter that’s currently prime for an upgrade, and they have Musgrove close with Kingham taking full advantage of the opportunities he’s been given.
If the decision is too tough, they can always kick the can down the road. Musgrove started his rehab assignment on May 1, meaning he has until the end of the month before he has to be brought back up. At that point, they’ll have to make a decision somewhere.