We’ve heard a lot of talk, really since April, that the Pirates need to promote pitching prospects from the farm system to mend their starting pitching issues. In truth many talking heads had decided the rotation wasn’t good enough to begin with. A bad couple of turns through the rotation in Pittsburgh and the hot start on the mound by top prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, as well as the lesser regarded Steven Brault and the heretofore unknown-turned-household-name Chad Kuhl, had some people ready for a full scale line change. Much to their chagrin, the only AAA starter promoted thus far has been Wilfredo Boscan for middle relief duty.
If everyone’s favorite quarterback is the backup, it stands to reason that people should also love their minor league pitchers. Evidently, the Pirates do as well with Neal Huntington stating that Taillon, Glasnow and Kuhl would all be called up to be starters. This simplifies the situation to a certain extent as we know what their roles will be, but things have changed a little. Things have changed at the top of the totem pole and the overall the situation is a little more complicated.
Simply, the rotation doesn’t suck as bad. Jon Niese and Jeff Locke have pitched better of late. Niese has put together four consecutive strong starts going 25.66666667 innings while allowing only 7 earned runs with 5 walks to 16 strikeouts. The longball has still been an issue for him, but it’s difficult to see him coming out of the rotation if he’s pitching the way he is currently. When Jeff Locke was on his way to the All Star game, pundits were falling all over themselves to declare him lucky based on advanced statistics. None came to his aid when he posted a .409 BABIP in April. That evened out and then some in his 9 shutout innings in
Puerto Rico Miami. Locke didn’t catch Zika against the Marlins, but he may be catching fire. Of course, that doesn’t count because no one saw as they were watching Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. He’s not a staff ace or an All Star again, but take two bad innings out of the equation and he’s been pretty steady.
The good news for those two is that Juan Nicasio makes for the obvious choice to lose his role as a starter. Not only has his form degraded (6.75 ERA in May), but he makes the most natural choice of the three to help the bullpen. He’s struggled with the longevity of his starts which might also suggest that shorter outing may improve his effectiveness. When he was signed, I thought he could shorten games by pitching in the sixth inning or as the Joe Blanton type, but shame on me, I had Arquimedes Caminero in the seventh. Thanks to Neftali Feliz stepping into the back end, I think he could assume that increasingly important swingman role in the bullpen.
His replacement is all but certainly Taillon. Two years of mending TJ and other ailments and the young Texan doesn’t appear to have much further to go before he finally makes his major league debut. We can likely count the days on two hands. While Kuhl leads the International League in ERA and Glasnow in K/9 at the time this piece was written, Taillon’s overall stuff and statistical package make him appear the most ready to come in and succeed right now.
One problem. He has an innings limit due to so much time off from live baseball and the organization has been mum on the specifics. The Pirates wisely skipped one of his starts in AAA, but it’s difficult to imagine him staying in the rotation much past the end of August. For me, the natural fit for Kuhl could come as Taillon’s eventual replacement. Don’t get me wrong, Kuhl’s numbers have been excellent and his power sinker has generated a ton of ground ball outs. While he’s struck out at a higher rate than earlier in his career, he still hasn’t struck them out at a high enough rate to suggest an easy transition to the show. Kuhl’s secondary pitches likely still need work as major league hitters can barrel a sinker if they know its coming. On top of that, he’s only spent two months in Indy. Rather than Super Two, real developmental concerns and experience could be holding Kuhl back.
Neither Niese nor Locke will block Glasnow from the majors, but they could allow the Pirates to apply another coat of polish in AAA before he gets called up. While Glasnow has an excellent fastball and a curve to match, his changeup needs work and a more regular place in his arsenal according to multiple outlets. On top of that his control has become more erratic in the month of May (4.63 BB/9 after managing 3 BB/9 in April). His strikeout rate remains excellent and his overall numbers merit a promotion despite the walk rate spike. However, the numbers aren’t always a great indicator of readiness, just ask Aaron Blair and the Atlanta Braves earlier this season. Eventually, he’ll replace one of Niese or Locke, but not because a date has past where the Bucs believe they can save some cash on him over his career. Ultimately, I think injury rather than inability could provide the push needed to facilitate his promotion. If that doesn’t happen, it will be when he’s truly ready. For now, he can focus on getting better rather than winning the NL Central.
If Jameson Taillon is the most major league ready player in the Pirates’ system, Josh Bell could be number two. No one talks about him because the need simply isn’t there. Not only is he blocked at first base, but he’s blocked on the bench as well. Without including defensive replacement Sean Rodriguez, the Pirates have six corner players with 50 PAs who are OPSing better than .750. To put that in perspective, the Cubs have four counting Matt Szczur, who may or may not get to fifty by the time this is published. Even though Bell is currently on fire after a bit of a slump, there isn’t a peep about his promotion on the internet, not even to serve as DH in the just-completed Texas series. He may get what very few Pirates prospects over the last 25 years have gotten: an entire season to simply get better in the minors.
Taillon’s path to the majors is clear, but Glasnow and Kuhl might have a more meandering trail to follow. To continue the metaphor, Bell is just wandering around the forest hoping to find a blaze marking. This has nothing to do with money, but improved performances by the players ahead of them reducing the sense of urgency to call prospects up fast and before they’re ready. As I noted with in the case of Glasnow, or four in the case of Bell, we’re almost to the point in the season where elite prospects could serve as depth. Until then, there aren’t any guarantees that the guys in the minors can provide a better performance than those already on the big club, but giving them a little extra time could be make Glasnow, Kuhl and Bell better players in September or next season than they would be focusing on results over development in the majors.