A typical 162 game regular season in MLB has 1,458 innings to be pitched. That doesn’t account for not pitching in the 9th innings of some games or extra inning affairs. It’s just the brute math of 162 x 9.
Gerrit Cole and his 203 innings in 2017 just walked out the door with roughly 14% of that total. No one remaining on the pitching staff had more than Ivan Nova’s 187. I’m hopeful that Jameson Taillon can expand upon his 133 innings with improved health. There may be a few more innings to squeeze out of Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams (157 and 150, respectively). New acquisition Joe Musgrove pitched a career-high 109 last year with the Astros.
To me, it seems like the Pirates are making the conscious decision to go with starters that may only face a lineup twice and get 5 innings out of them. Then they’ll turn it over to a power bullpen that can, hopefully, lay the bridge work to get to Felipe Rivero.
Let’s take a look at what the composition of the 12-man pitching staff may be.
STARTING PITCHER LOCKS
- Jameson Taillon
- Ivan Nova
- Chad Kuhl
- Trevor Williams
It doesn’t inspire much fear, but it’s competent as we saw last year.
BULLPEN PITCHER LOCKS
- Felipe Rivero
- Daniel Hudson *
- George Kontos
- Michael Feliz
The asterisk by Hudson’s name demonstrates that I think Neal Huntington is burning through his cell phone plan to offload his $5.5M salary in 2018. I’m sure if it doesn’t happen they’ll continue to work with him by mechanically and mentally to regain some confidence and justify the deal, but I’ll be moderately surprised if he’s here on Opening Day.
STARTING PITCHER CANDIDATES
- Joe Musgrove
- Steven Brault
- Tyler Glasnow
- Nick Kingham
By virtue of the Cole trade, I think that Musgrove has the inside track to be in the starting rotation. However, we’ve seen odder things happen in Spring Training in recent years. I’m not a fan of Brault as a starter and my feelings on Glasnow converting to the bullpen are well-trodden at this point. The Pirates lobbied for and received a fourth option on Kingham, due to his injuries, so that nearly ensures he’s under glass at Indianapolis until needed.
BULLPEN PITCHER CANDIDATES
- Kyle Crick
- Dovydas Neverauskas
- A.J. Schugel
- Steven Brault
- Tyler Glasnow
- Jack Leathersich
- Jordan Milbrath (Rule 5 pick)
- Edgar Santana
- Nik Turley
Congrats to Jordan Milbrath for surviving on the 40-man roster after the Houston Astro acquisitions came to town. I thought for sure he’d be out the door and back to the Indians.
I’m pretty sure that Neverauskas has a place in Pittsburgh on Opening Day. There’s not really anything left for him to prove in AAA, he acquitted himself well in his audition last season, and he’s not the kind of pitcher you worry about gaming service time. It would be bold if Crick made the Opening Day roster, but I think he’ll be up in Pittsburgh by Memorial Day if he starts off in the minors.
Aside from Rivero, the Pirates don’t have an obvious lefty reliever. Is Steven Brault the new Wade LeBlanc? So let’s lay out a potential 12-man staff.
THE POTENTIAL 12-MAN STAFF
Starters — Taillon, Nova, Kuhl, Williams, Musgrove
Relievers — Rivero, Hudson (*), Kontos, Feliz, Neverauskas, Brault, Glasnow
The Pirates are relying on Taillon and Nova to consume innings this year. Ideally, both of them would go a minimum of 6 innings per start, hopefully 7. However, for the other three guys, I could see the Pirates being OK with going 5 innings and then ‘bullpenning’ the rest of the game. Here’s a look at their opponent’s OPS as they face a lineup the first, second, and third times through from last year:
If the Pirates can get 185 innings out of both Taillon and Nova, then 160 innings out of Kuhl and Williams, plus 150 innings from Musgrove, that would leave a shade over 600 innings for the bullpen to absorb. That breakdown of innings among the starters is very similar to what the Yankees got in 2017, with the remainder picked up by their excellent bullpen. Pitchers like Chad Green and Adam Warren were more than capable of going multiple innings, if needed. The Pirates are attempting to create their own modified version of that bullpen it seems.
Depending on the composition of the lineup he’d face, Brault could easily go 2 innings if needed. Glasnow would still be stretched out in starter mode and could do the same. Michael Feliz occasionally pitched multiple innings with the Astros over his career. I’m not calling for an outright piggyback system where Kuhl-Brault, Williams-Glasnow, Musgrove-Feliz are set duos, but I’d consider some type of variation on the idea.
That would get you 7 innings and then you could turn the game over to your setup tandem of Kontos and Hudson to guide the plane in for a smooth landing with Rivero in the 9th inning.
I think the trio of Glasnow, Brault, and Neverauskas could become quite familiar with the Pittsburgh to Indianapolis flight, unfortunately. They’re the bullpen guys with options remaining (aside from Feliz, who I don’t see going down), so I can envision them being switched in and out for reinforcements like Kyle Crick, Jack Leathersich, and Edgar Santana, if needed.
And if I could do some second-tier thinking here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates try to game the disabled list system a little bit this year. The Dodgers have executed this strategy beautifully as they managed an overstuffed roster full of injury histories. I’m not saying that if Hudson is still on the team he gets a phantom injury if he struggles again…but I’m not not saying it, either. Some of the guys could sit down for 10 days with ‘fatigue’ and keep bringing in fresh-to-MLB arms to keep the train rolling.
The Pirates are trying to get on the trend of the super-pen, but do it on a budget. If Feliz, and to a lesser extent Crick, can be turned into useful end-game assets, then this gambit will be a success. (It still doesn’t justify trading Cole for a setup man, but work with me here.)