The Pirates sent Nick Kingham down yesterday, and are bringing Jose Osuna up today. Both moves seem temporary, with Kingham expected to return in a little over a week when the team needs a fifth starter, and Osuna only expected to be up during that time.
Both players have performed well in Triple-A this year, and have performed in brief appearances in the majors (very brief in Osuna’s case), but the Pirates will have difficult decisions to make if they want to keep either player in the majors for the long-term this year.
I avoided using the word “difficult” in the headline, and I hesitate to use it here, because everyone has that one player who they would gladly replace. That’s paired with backup QB analysis for Kingham and Osuna, where both players are projected for the best possible outcomes as guaranteed upgrades, and there is no consideration that they could struggle with extended time. But as I’ll break down below, it’s not that simple to just keep Kingham and Osuna up for good, and expect a guaranteed upgrade in either case.
Joe Musgrove’s Return and the Rotation
If the reaction to Nick Kingham getting optioned down yesterday was an indication, then I don’t want to see the reactions after the game on May 19th.
The Pirates sent Kingham down because they don’t need a fifth starter for the next week and a half. They are bringing Jose Osuna up today, and will either keep him up for the duration, or possibly go with an extra reliever (more on that in a bit).
The Pirates will go with Joe Musgrove as a starter when he’s ready to return. That should be around the end of May, no earlier than May 22nd. The rest of the rotation will remain with Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams.
Kingham should return for the start on May 19th, the next time the Pirates need a fifth starter. But when Musgrove returns, Kingham’s future is up in the air.
It’s difficult to make a call on Kingham. He has pitched well in his two starts in the majors, and all of his starts in the minors. He looks ready for the big leagues. At the least, he deserves to stick around in a long relief role.
Kingham has already passed up Steven Brault in the rotation, as shown by Kingham sticking around and taking the start at the end of last week. The question is whether the Pirates would keep him around and send Brault down to Indianapolis. Brault hasn’t done well in the rotation, but hasn’t been bad in his limited work in the bullpen. It’s a small sample size, but so is the sample of Kingham’s MLB innings.
The next few weeks will give Brault more time in the bullpen, and will see one more start from Kingham. That could help the decision making process. Right now, the Pirates will have to decide between sending Brault down, or keeping Kingham down as a solid depth option if an injury arises.
As for other spots in the rotation, I know there will be some calling for Chad Kuhl to get moved to the bullpen. Kuhl actually looks like a better option to me to stay a starter than Trevor Williams, just looking at their xFIP numbers. And I don’t think Kuhl’s numbers so far should be replaced by a guy after two starts. Either way, you’re still looking at the same situation, with Brault being the guy who is likely to go to Triple-A.
Jose Osuna’s Time in the Majors
It’s uncertain how long Osuna will be up. Will the Pirates keep him around after the White Sox series, or will they go with an extra reliever once they start playing NL teams again? One thing seems clear: He probably won’t be up once they need a fifth starter again.
Osuna has the unfortunate situation that he’s blocked at every position. Josh Bell is struggling with a .661 OPS, but the Pirates aren’t going to replace Bell with Osuna. Colin Moran is the starter at third, and has a .774 OPS. David Freese is the backup at both positions, with an .845 OPS off the bench.
The corner infield spots are blocked, and the guy playing Osuna’s best role off the bench is playing well, with better defense than Osuna can provide.
The outfield isn’t really an option for Osuna, due in part to defensive limitations, and because the Pirates just aren’t replacing any of their three guys. That includes Gregory Polanco, who is struggling with a .740 OPS.
The problem here is that Osuna has done nothing to show that he’s a better option than any of the current starters. In his time in the majors last year, he had a .697 OPS, plus poor defense. Polanco might be struggling, but he’s still performing better than Osuna performed when he got extended time. Bell is performing below those levels, but has done better in the past. Moran and Freese are also performing better than Osuna.
Osuna can help his cause by performing well in his time in the majors. But there’s still a problem of playing time. The simple solution would be to send down someone like Max Moroff and keep Osuna up. But Osuna is currently third on the depth charts at the corner infield positions, and limited by his defense as a backup in the outfield. He’s likely going to need an injury, or to carry over his offense from Triple-A in a big way in order to remain on the roster long-term this year.