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The Pirates’ Pitcher Theory Appears To Be All Hands On Deck

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:

Times Thru Kuhl Williams Musgrove
1st 853 800 833
2nd 699 573 832
3rd 852 820 1176

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.)

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

15 Comments on The Pirates’ Pitcher Theory Appears To Be All Hands On Deck

  1. Lee Young // January 18, 2018 at 9:27 AM //

    Great article. Hard to argue with the math.

    But, I’m stubborn and I’d like to give Glasnow one last try in the rotation.

  2. Perhaps I’m jumping on a future article…but how many games can they win 2-1? I think the pitching may be okay. But how will this team score runs?

    • Bob Stover // January 18, 2018 at 10:48 AM //

      If Moran provides as much offensive production as Kang, and Bell, Marte, Glasnow and Cervelli all contribute fully healthy seasons, they can score a lot of runs.

    • Kevin Creagh // January 18, 2018 at 3:50 PM //

      As presently constituted on Jan 18, this team is going to struggle mightily. They have to fill the OF void with a FA — even if it is Jay or Dyson, just for the ML experience. Jordan Luplow and Jose Osuna is not going to cut it.

      • Why would they trade Cutch for 12.5M in savings just to sign one of those guys for 8-10M? All they got was a replacement level reliever projected to worth less than Hudson next season. Oh, and a guy they could’ve got with their own QO pick

        • Kevin Creagh // January 18, 2018 at 10:22 PM //

          I’m not saying I agree w trading McCutchen, but its about years of control.

          Instead of 1 yr of Cutch at $14.5, they could get Jay/Dyson for $6-8m for a couple years, send $2m to SF for Crick and Reynolds, then hope Crick harnesses his command to be a setup guy w 6 yrs of control.

        • Bob Stover // January 19, 2018 at 10:34 AM //

          There would have been no QO pick for Cutch. That is only for Arbitration eligible players. Cutch was in the option year of a contract and it either expired and he walks or they trade him. They traded him and it was a smart move. We shall see how the return works out, but it’s certainly much better than a QO pick at the end of the 2nd round who wouldn’t likely be in the major leagues before 2021 or 22.

          • Kevin Creagh // January 19, 2018 at 10:54 AM //

            This is not true at all. In the 2018 season, McCutchen’s option makes him the same as any other player nearing free agency. His controlling team at the START of the ML season has the right to give him a QO. If a player is traded mid-season, that doesn’t extend to the new team. So now SF can give him a 1 year QO of around $16-17M. If he turns it down (he will), SF then receives compensation based on the level of contract McCutchen receives in FA. The threshold is $50M of total contract value. Less than that, the team gets a compensatory pick after the Competitive Balance round B. Over $50M in total value garners a team a supplemental first round pick.
            https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2017/08/offseason-primer-the-new-qualifying-offer-rules.html

      • Bob Stover // January 19, 2018 at 10:31 AM //

        And you know that Luplow and Osuna are not going to cut it because…?

        • Kevin Creagh // January 19, 2018 at 10:49 AM //

          History and statistical evidence? What did you see in Jose Osuna’s 227 Plate Appearances that generated a 78 wRC+ (22% less offense than a league average player) to think he’s going to be an answer?
          Luplow was rushed to the Majors last year after just limited AAA experience due to need. He was also terrible (72 wRC+) and didn’t show me anything to think he’s an impact player in the future.

          • Bob Stover // January 19, 2018 at 12:56 PM //

            It’s still way, way, way too early to say that they will never be major league contributors, or even potentially future stars. Young guys do not usually flourish in limited roles of spot starts and pinch hitting. Both have enough history, (minor league for Osuna, college for Luplow), to suggest that both will one day be regular major league players. They’ve got to play everyday, not twice or three times a week.

          • Bob Stover // January 19, 2018 at 12:58 PM //

            I might add that Jay-Hay didn’t really impress anyone until he got a chance to play every day. I suspect the same may well turn out to be true for Osuna and Luplow. Take a look at Harrison’s WRC+ for his first two major league seasons.

  3. Bob Stover // January 18, 2018 at 10:43 AM //

    Like it or not, GM’s are a bunch of monkey-see, monkey-do types. Since other teams have had success with the super pen concept, it’s going to spread far and wide throughout MLB. The extent to which it will work is only as good as those bullpen arms. The Pirates for the most part have untested guys for those 6th and 7th inning roles. Feliz and Crick are more valuable precisely because they have done it at the major league level and both Brault and Glasnow have not. If one of the two Pirates prospects on that list becomes a successful bullpen power arm they are going to have a very good pitching staff without any superstar starters. That’s fine with me.

  4. Kevin – how does Luplow rate in SSR? Osuna has always seemed like a long-shot to succeed at the major league level, but Luplow seems like a prospect that is worth investing playing time in to help him reach his upside.

    If he does rate well, wouldn’t 2018 be exactly the year that the Bucs should invest that playing time in such a prospect? If not now – when we are clearly not a division contender – then when?

    • Kevin Creagh // January 22, 2018 at 8:21 AM //

      If you average out his EL and IL stints, he’s around a 50. I think he was rushed to the Majors in 2017 because they didn’t want to spend money on a Bruce/Granderson type when Polanco when down with his hamstring injuries. In my opinion, he needs a chunk of 2018 in AAA to see what is truly there. His AAA stint was not as successful as his AA one (from a K/BB perspective), so I’m skeptical.

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