For a team with an alleged pitching problem, the Pirates sure do have a lot of major league ready youngsters.
Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon form a usually solid, albeit streaky, top three. They should be anchoring this rotation for years to come. From there, the final two spots are anybody’s guess.
The good news is there is plenty of young major leaguers vying for those spots. The bad news is there isn’t enough room for all of them and some can’t be stored in the minors much longer.
“It might be the best problem we could possibly have: too much starting pitching,” Neal Huntington said Sunday. “I don’t think anybody ever has that.”
The funny thing about the five guys I am going to mention is they were all considered undesirable this year, either because of their performance or their scouting reports. They’ve all made adjustments since then, so let’s look at what’s changed, and who the Pirates should go forward with.
I, like many others, saw Williams as a future swingman or ground ball specialist coming into this year. Instead, he has become Nova-lite. 61.1 percent of his outs have come on three pitches or less or on an 0-2 count. That is exactly what Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage dream of.
Williams never looked comfortable coming out of the bullpen earlier this year. He was gun chasing, over throwing his fastball to get to 95 MPH while trying to make his slider a wipeout pitch. That wasn’t him, and he went back to his old ways once he became a starter again. As he put it Monday night, “the Pirates called up Trevor Williams, not another style of Trevor Williams.”
If you throw away his time as a reliever and his first start in Los Angeles (an appearance where he was very clearly unprepared to fill in for Taillon), he has a 3.56 ERA over 91 innings in 16 starts this year. His groundball rate is an even 50%. There’s a legitimate chance of him being a 3 fWAR player this year.
It’s probably safe to say that Williams has gone from a fringe guy to a potential mainstay in the rotation over the last two in and a half months. There’s a lot to like about him, both on the field and off. Hurdle praised him for constantly asking good questions. Cervelli loves that “He doesn’t say no. He just pitches.” And his Twitter game? Three fire emojis out of three.
To think the Pirates got Williams from the Marlins in exchange for an executive who thought signing Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke in the same offseason was a good idea.
Kuhl is on a hot streak of his own, recording a 2.70 ERA and 31 strikeouts since the calendar turned to July. He’s also going deeper into games. He tied a major league record by going 12 starts failing to record more than five innings pitched from mid-April to June. With the exception of an emergency start on two days rest on July 9, he’s pitched into the sixth in every outing since July.
It looks like that curveball Kuhl has developed has been just what he needed. While he’s only throwing it a couple times per game, it’s providing a different look in velocity. Batters no longer can just sit on a pitch that will be in the 90s, regardless of if it’s a fastball, slider or changeup. Now they have to account for a pitch in the 70s too. It’s making them uncomfortable.
Kuhl relied too heavily on the slider before, too. It’s a plus pitch for him, but it got him behind in the count too often. Now he’s back to what he did when rising through the minors: throwing two-seamers to get ground balls.
Plenty of scouts projected Kuhl as a major league reliever when he was coming up in the minors, but it’s hard to deny he could be a starter. Even when he struggled earlier in the year, there was usually something good to pull from his start. He can be too fiery at times, making him the wild card of the group. A wild card is a good thing to have in a mix like this.
Sometimes a pitcher needs to fail to improve. Glasnow never failed in the minors, so when he got rocked in the majors, he did not know how to handle it. He sulked through press conferences and let mistakes turn into disasters on the mound.
Keep your fingers crossed that he has turned a corner going back to work with Stan Kyles. Right now, it doesn’t look like the Glasnow Pittsburgh saw in May.
Glasnow has a AAA ERA of 1.61 over 10 starts. In that time, he’s walked 25 and struck out 92 over 61.2 innings. To make matters better, Huntington has been giving positive reviews during his time back in AAA. According to him, Glasnow has stopped throwing 56 foot breaking balls. Why? A minor league hitter will chase it. A major leaguer won’t. Growth through failure.
Glasnow probably won’t be recalled until the end of the AAA season. That way, the Pirates can squeeze out one more year of team control from. Throwing him in the bullpen for a month and then letting him compete for a 2018 starting job is the right way to handle him.
He has the stuff. If he can stay confident and learn how to use it to get major league batters out, he will be elite.
Everyone in this rundown besides Brault has had ups and downs this year. With the exception of a cup of coffee in July where he was thrown into a role he wasn’t used to, Brault has been consistently good in AAA, posting an ERA of 2.20.
While Williams was the toast of Pittsburgh Monday, Brault matched him pitch for pitch in Indianapolis. He also went seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and picking up 13 ground ball outs. His sinker looks a lot better this year, and it’s a big reason why his groundball rate is over 50 percent. He’s also improved in pitching out of the stretch, stranding 83.8 percent of base runners entering Monday. That high LOB percentage probably won’t translate well into the majors, but that extra tick in his fastball velocity that we saw in July might.
I still see Brault projecting to fall somewhere between Paul Maholm and Jeff Locke. That was a knock on him for most people. I mean that as a compliment. Both of those guys were good back of the rotation lefties that could start for just about any team. He has a medium ceiling and a high floor.
Huntington said Sunday that there are two types of pitchers who return from serious injuries: those who jump right back in and those who need time to readjust.
Hopefully Kingham is the latter. After a rough first half of the season, he has turned in three straight gems where he has gone at least seven innings and not allowed more than one run.
“Maybe Nick is going through that next phase in the cycle where is just able to go out, be aggressive,” Huntington said Sunday. “Trust his arm, trust his pitching ability, get the feel back and be a pitcher, versus a rehabber.”
Kingham has always been a control first guy. He allowed just three walks in that three game stretch, so it’s possible he is back on that next phase. Then again, it is just three starts.
Despite his Tommy John Surgery, his slump and a fastball that sits only in the low 90s (what a time in baseball history where we can say “only in the low 90s”), Kingham is still a top 10 prospect within the organization. If he finally has his edge back, he could be the dark horse of the group.
Having too much pitching is the best problem a team could have. But with Kingham out of options next year and Brault and Glasnow clearly ready for another go in the majors, there just isn’t enough room in Pittsburgh. They could stash Brault away in AAA for another year if necessary, but at some point they owe him a fair chance to pitch in the majors, either with the Pirates or another team.
Not to mention there’s another batch of pitchers coming up soon. Mitch Keller is in AA. Taylor Hearn is probably not too far behind. Jarrod Prugar- my co-host for the podcast show “Pirates Countdown” (hooray shoehorned self-promotion!)- is convinced Alex McRae will reach the majors.
So what do they do? They could trade away a guy or two to address a need like third base. If any team was going to try to start “bullpenning” and make a starter into a two inning, high leverage reliever, it would be this team. They could also do something even bolder, like trade Gerrit Cole to replenish a farm system that has dropped to 14th, according to Baseball America.
They don’t need to make a decision now, but they will this offseason. Small market teams need to grow pitching to be successful. They’ve done the growing. Picking will be the hard part.