One of the big topics this week in Pittsburgh Pirates camp was the opt out clause for Clayton Richard. The lefty decided to stick around in the organization, which meant he would go to extended Spring Training and eventually go to Triple-A.
There is another opt out situation in minor league camp. The Pirates signed Chris Volstad as a minor league free agent this off-season, but didn’t give him an invite to Major League camp. The right-hander has an opt out clause. Or maybe “had” is the right word. Honestly, I don’t know. Because Volstad doesn’t even care about the clause enough to know the date.
“I couldn’t even tell you what day it was, or if it’s even passed yet or not. It wasn’t anything I was ever concerned with or thinking about,” Volstad said.
This makes two situations this week where a pitcher with MLB service time has ignored his opt out clause in order to stick around in the Pirates’ minor league system, hoping they’ll fix him and get his career back on track.
“They have a great track record for working with guys,” Volstad said. “I knew through the coaches over here, from past teams and organizations. I had a lot of friends that came through here, and they had nothing but great things to say. All of those factors were the reason why [I signed].”
The right-hander talked with a lot of his former Marlins teammates who came through the Pirates’ organization — Tim Wood, Logan Kensing, Rick VandenHurk — and got great reviews. The biggest influence was Wood, who was the closer for Indianapolis in 2011 and 2012, and made it to the majors for a brief call-up in 2011.
Volstad has plenty of experience in the majors, throwing 703.2 innings between the Marlins, Cubs, and Rockies. He had some success when he first came up in 2008, but has largely struggled since then, looking like a number five starter at best. In his career, he has a 4.94 ERA and a 4.28 xFIP. He checks off a lot of the boxes you see with typical Pirates’ reclamation projects — high ground ball rates, the ability to get some strikeouts, and a high walk rate that could be fixed by pitching to contact and benefitting from the organization’s focus on pitch framing.
Despite these trends, Volstad isn’t the typical reclamation project. Those guys usually have had success in the past in the majors, and the Pirates are trying to get them back to where they were mechanically during those successful times. Volstad is a different case. He’s a guy who has the talent to be a good MLB pitcher, but has lacked the little bit extra needed to stick at the major league level. A big reason for that was his inconsistency with his off-speed pitches.
“If hitters only need to focus on one pitch because the other two are inconsistent at times, or you haven’t really shown you can’t throw it for a strike at the big league level, it makes it really easy for them,” Volstad said.
He has been focusing this year on that consistency, especially with his curveball. He’s been working on a few mechanical adjustments to improve the secondary stuff, giving him better command of the pitch.
“Because of little mechanical flaws, it was just inconsistent at times,” Volstad said of his curveball. “The biggest thing is just controlling it, throwing it where I want to. Working with these mechanical adjustments, staying back better, getting my hand more on top of the ball, I’m able to locate it better. It just opens up a lot of things when you’re able to throw it for a strike, when you can throw it in the dirt, you can attack guys in different ways.”
With Richard starting in extended Spring Training, and Jameson Taillon unlikely to be with Indianapolis until mid-season, a rotation spot was opened up for Volstad. He will start for the Indians at the beginning of the year. He hasn’t been mentioned as an early season depth option, but if all goes well, he could definitely work his way into the majors at some point.
“We talked coming in that I’d be a starter, and just kind of see how things develop. You’ve got a lot of great arms in this organization,” Volstad said. “I definitely want to be in that position. Hopefully that’s the case. I’m just trying to focus on what I can to put myself in that scenario and hopefully be at least considered.”
For now, he will remain in the organization — opt out clause or no opt out clause — and hope that their pitching coaches can work their magic with him and get him on track to eventually stick in the majors for good — even if that means he’ll be pitching in the minors. That’s the same decision Richard came to earlier in the week, when he said his experience in the organization has been terrific.
“I feel the same way,” Volstad said, in reference to Richard’s comments. I love the guys I’m working with. The players in the organization. All the guys coming up, and the guys that will be in Triple-A. It’s been great.”