Juan Nicasio is Officially Competing With Locke and Vogelsong For a Rotation Spot

BRADENTON, Fla. – All throughout the off-season, it looked like the Pirates would carry a rotation that included Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong in the fourth and fifth spots, with Juan Nicasio serving as a long-man and rotation depth out of the bullpen. It looked the same way throughout Spring Training, with Nicasio only being talked about as an option to be stretched out. But today, Neal Huntington said that Nicasio was in the mix for a rotation spot.

“They’re two of our six options,” Huntington said when answering a question about Vogelsong and Nicasio. “You look at [Gerrit] Cole and [Francisco] Liriano and you build the rotation around them. We fully anticipate Jon Niese will be in the rotation. We brought those three guys — Locke, Nicasio and Vogelsong — two of those three will be our fourth and fifth starters to start the season. I think you all know well enough we’re going to need a sixth starter some time before we want to, and that’s where it’s great to have those guys ready to go.”

Nicasio will make a start this afternoon, and really drew a lot of attention after striking out ten batters in four innings his last time out against the Orioles. That might have been what got him in the conversation for one of the rotation spots.

“We’ve still got two weeks to go, he’s thrown the ball very well in Spring Training,” Huntington said. “We’ve seen some very strong outings and very strong indicators from Vogelsong and Locke. We don’t want to say it’s a wide open competition, yet at the same time we brought Juan here for a reason.”

Huntington said that they brought Nicasio as an option to start and pitch out of the bullpen. He also noted they liked Ryan Vogelsong’s success in the first half last year, before he started bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, and how they liked Niese’s first half. In Nicasio’s case, they’ve talked about how they liked what he did in the bullpen last year, and liked some things below the numbers when he was a starter in Colorado.

“When we signed him, we worked off the normalized numbers coming out of Colorado,” Huntington said. “On the surface they don’t look all that pretty, but we think there are some things that we can help, whether it’s approach, mechanics, our ballpark, our defense. We think that will help in the same way.”

I wouldn’t say that Nicasio is a guarantee to make the rotation at all. But it seems he’s got more of a shot now than he did before Spring Training started. And if he continues pitching well, then he could leave less room for error with Locke (working on new mechanics) and Vogelsong (working on who knows what?).

“We’ve got a group of pitchers that we think give us some starting depth, and we’ll see how it plays out,” Huntington said.

The Bullpen Picking up the Slack for the Rotation

The topic of Nicasio possibly making the rotation came up with the talk of how the Pirates approached the bullpen this off-season. Huntington noted that the cost of starting pitching is always expensive, but that “the market truly blew up this year.” They traded Neil Walker to acquire a starting pitcher who was under control for a few years, and dealt Charlie Morton to create some salary relief for Vogelsong and Nicasio.

“That’s where starter 5 and starter 6 will come from,” Huntington said of Vogelsong and Nicasio. “At the same time we wanted to build a bullpen that Clint could use frequently but also for multiple innings. And that’s where the multiple, multiple inning guys have come from. We saw some benefit to it from a year ago. That’s where Nicasio, as well as Feliz, who has also pitched late in the game, have pitched multiple innings in the past. And a handful of guys — stretching Caminero out, stretching Hughes out, giving Clint multiple innings. In perfect world the last guy in the bullpen can go one-plus.”

I wrote last week that Nicasio looks more like a typical reclamation project than Vogelsong or Niese, due primarily to his stuff. But none of the 3-6 options look like guys who can go deep into games like Cole or Liriano. And so the bullpen is currently set up to allow for Clint Hurdle to shorten games and take starters out early. Huntington mentioned that the trade for Joakim Soria last year was in line with this approach, giving another premium arm late in the game. He also noted that this allowed them to remove J.A. Happ earlier in a lot of starts.

Happ only pitched beyond the sixth inning twice, and one of those starts came with a quick hook in the seventh. Three of his first five starts saw him below 90 pitches, even though he was giving up zero or one runs in those three outings, and only pitching into the sixth inning. There was also a start against the Cardinals where he threw 56 pitches in six shutout innings, before being pulled.

The bullpen set up this year could allow the Pirates to get a bit more aggressive, pulling guys earlier than the sixth inning, and using long relievers to bridge the gap to their shutdown guys in the later innings.

“That’s part of the multiple, multi-inning guys is to give the Clint the ability — as he did with J.A. Happ last year, as he did with some of our guys later in the season — that he can go get [a starter] early if wants to. If they’ve thrown six good innings he’ll go get them. In a perfect world this year, if he needs to go get someone in the fifth we have guys that can go multiple innings, five and six with somebody, then the seventh and eighth with someone, then hopefully it’s the ninth with Melancon.”

So no matter who is starting, the Pirates might not always need them to go deep into games, since their bullpen is set up to allow them to remove guys at the first sign of trouble, rather than making sure they can pitch into the sixth and seventh innings.

Roster Notes

**One interesting roster decision for the bench will involve whether the Pirates keep Matt Joyce as a fourth outfielder, or whether they go with super utility guys like Cole Figueroa and Sean Rodriguez as their backup outfielders off the bench.

“We’ve got some really interesting decisions to make as this winds down,” Huntington said. “Matt Joyce obviously does damage against right-handed pitchers. Could be that fourth outfielder if we went with a pure fourth outfielder. We’ve got Figueroa, Rodriguez that can run into the outfield. Morse can run into the outfield. Rogers has been in the outfield. We’ve spent most of our time with him at third base, trying to see if he can be a corner utility guy for us, bounce back between first and third. We’ll have some interesting decisions.”

Joyce is an Article XX-B minor league free agent, meaning the Pirates could keep him in Triple-A by paying him a $100,000 retention bonus five days before the start of the season. He could then opt out of his deal on June 1st, and I learned yesterday that he has no opt out before that point.

The Pirates could go with Joyce as depth out of Triple-A, and go with the super utility guys off the bench at the start of the year. The bench depth isn’t that important when you consider that Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco won’t get as much time off as players at other positions. But the Pirates will need a good depth option if one of those guys goes down, and Joyce would be the top guy for that depth option.

“We like our depth in Triple-A,” Huntington said. “At the same time, we do need to be cognizant of who would play the outfield on a regular basis if we had an injury, and where would we go with that, and that will be part of the decision process as we move forward.”

**Once again, don’t think that the final bullpen spot will automatically go to a second left-hander: “If that second lefty can get right-handers out with consistency, it would be great. But we’d much rather have seven pitchers that Clint believes in and trusts, and Ray believes in and trusts. If two of them happen to be left-handed, because that’s the way we’ve put this together, that is a benefit. But, again, we’re looking for seven pitchers that can get guys from both sides out.”

**Huntington repeated that they’re still looking at a mid-to-late April return for Jung-ho Kang.

**Speaking of the outfield, the Pirates consider Michael Morse an option there, but not exactly due to his defense.

“We like him in the batter’s box,” Huntington said. “He’s gonna go play first and right field and he’ll give us everything he has. 21-foot wall not too far behind you helps right fielders. We’ve seen guys come into PNC Park who are not very good defensive outfielders and go out into left field and not get exposed over a series. Over an extended period of time, you’d like a better defender out there, but Mike’s going to give us everything he has. We’re comfortable putting him in right field on occasion. Much more comfortable with him in the batter’s box. Obviously we are very comfortable with him at first base.”

  • Niese, Locke, Vogelsong, and Nicasio will likely pitch 5-6 innings in a typical week. It’s just that one of them will accumulate their innings 2 innings at a time out of the pen.

  • 6 innings, 8 ks, no runs……not that I expect much out of Nicasio really………..but he’s earned the spot to lose at this point. I don’t care whether he replaces locke or vogelsong, or maybe they can piggyback locke and vogelsong as the last starter

  • Hurdle just said Locke working out at first base to improve his versatility to the team Makes sense if you think about it..if he hits ok he’d never have to come out of game. AJ is his position coach.

  • Nicasio’s spring:

    15IP, 0R, 24/5-K/BB.

    Yep, let’s go with Locke… After all, he’s a lefty!!!!!!!!

    • Spring 2014: Pick one of the following

      Option A: 2.21 ERA in 20 innings with a .256 average against and 1.33 WHIP
      Option B: 6.17 ERA in 11 innings with a 2.86 average against and a 1.37 WHIP

      • You’ve made your point—spring training doesn’t mean sh**. What will be the excuse when Locke is getting shelled in April/May?

        • Jeff Locke career splits:
          first half of season: 3 ERA
          second half of season: 5 ERA

          Go down the line of a ton of advanced stats and it bears the same thing: to this point in his career Jeff Locke is a fine #5 option until mid season. Then he implodes into tears of sadness for fans.

          • I feel like I am too hard on Jeff, seems like a decent enough guy. Although, I will say that he looks more like a skateboard instructor than a professional athlete. I guess baseball players are a different breed of athlete—c.f., David Wells, Big Papi, and Sandoval.

    • Wait, why is Locke the one to the pen?

  • Nicasio with 6 K’s through 3 innings pitched, still hasn’t given up a run this spring….

    • If Nicasio provides the best chance to win, then he’s the man. They all make about the same amount, and I doubt the Pirates have any type of long-term plans for any of them. In his last year as a SP in 2014 he did well in the first 2 months. With Locke having the possibility of being the 2nd lefty in the BP, that might be a good idea.

      • Pirates might be wishing they had non tendered Locke.

      • Except Locke hasnt, to this point in his career, actually been better against lefties. If the point of having a 2nd lefty is to have a guy able to do well against LHH, Locke for some reason doesnt fit that general description.

        • Luke….incorrect….Clint has always stressed that he wants a LHP to get guys out from both sides.

          • Right, which means the arm wouldnt be a key factor in who goes to the pen, but who they feel is best for transitioning to the bullpen.

            Locke being a lefty doesnt really do him any good since he doesnt do well against LHH and the team already prefers guys to go an inning regardless of matchup. I’d think they’d see Vogelsong being able to K nearly a hitter an inning from the bullpen as interesting, if Nicasio forces their hand with the rotation spot.

            • Who knows with Jeff Locke? Just look at the last 2 years – In 2015 LH batters batted 30 points higher than RH batters; in 2014, LH batters batted 80 points lower than RH batters. As a SP he is “thinking” 15 outs; as a RP he is looking no further than the batter at the plate – could that be a benefit to him and the team now and in the future?

              • Good thing we dont have to guess with Vogelsong, we’ve got a limited data set to look at.

                He’ll K between 8 and 9 guys an inning in relief, with non awful periphs. Already with limited experience doing it.

                Give me Vogelsong in relief, able to cover the 6th inning or throw 2-3 in desperation time. Good enough K rate, with Searage working to limit his BB rate to magically become what Mazzaro and Gomez and Blanton were.

      • It’s going to sound insane to say, but Jeff Locke is too good of a first half pitcher to lose his spot in the rotation out of ST.

        Career splits:

        1st half: .641 OPS, 3.00 ERA
        2nd half: .804 OPS 5.34 ERA

        Compare Locke’s 1st half career numbers with these:

        .648 OPS, 3.07 ERA.

        Those ^^^^^, right there, are Cole’s career totals.

        No, not saying he’s the pitcher Cole is…but, career-wise, Locke has been a solid first-half pitcher.

        • I hear ya, but it is going to be the decision of NH/Ray/Clint. We know the capabilities of Nicasio and Vogelsong in the BP, but Locke is a mystery. In relief, limiting the types of pitches thrown could be to his advantage. And, if as a SP last year he was mostly 91/92 with his FB and then some 93/94 stuff, could he have better velocity as a 2 inning reliever? Also, I think his numbers balloon with the number of times batters see him in a game – can he be that much more efficient in 2 innings or less?

          • My thinking that someone is gone from the rotation when the Super Two date passes. With Locke being a strong 1st half pitcher…I’ll let him roll unless his summer implosion kicks in early.

            As for your last sentence…I thought the same thing too and almost posted something last night about how much better he’d be if he got the hook earlier and didn’t try to go through the lineup for a third time. Looked it up…seems I was wrong…gets hammered early.

            Locke’s best innings by ERA:

            2, 5, 7, 6, 1, 4, 3.

            He’s only thrown 9 total innings beyond the 7th…so it didn’t seem relevant to include those. That his best inning is the second isn’t too shocking…since he’s carrying an ERA of 4.45 in the first, I’m guessing he’s usually starting the second against the bottom of the order.

            Anyway, if one of the two have to go, I’d prefer RV is sent to the pen.

  • Getting multiple innings out of relievers will sometimes require double switches, which makes a 4th OF a little more important. It may only impact Polanco, but I could see him being switched out both because of his projected spot in the lineup (5th or 6th) falling just a few spots in front of the pitcher’s spot and because there may not be a big drop-off between him and, say, Joyce as a hitter.

    • Which is sort of what sucks about Joyce as a 4th outfielder; limited defensively and easily relegated at the plate by LHP. Ideally you’d want even the slightest bit of versatility from that role. At the same time, a couple hot months can do wonders, as Travis Snider taught us all.

      • They could also, and here it comes, throw Harrison in RF with Rodriguez covering 2B if they want to double switch all that often. Its dumb, but it would work better than just assuming Joyce is going to be good.

        Or we could use Figueroa in that role and call take backs on the Rodriguez deal. He never called no take backs, right???

        • Gonna have to consult the CBA first… 😉

        • Or have Rogers diagnosed with a hangnail and invalidate the Broxton trade….

          • Ha, Broxton would be better but his hit tool doesnt actually have me thinking he’d be a “good” option if we have to double switch a lot. Good defense and speed but you’d still give up too many at bats for my liking unless we steal some STL magic dust.

    • 5th or 6th???? How is that his projected lineup spot.

      • Jaso, Cutch, Marte, Kang, and then Cervelli and Polanco in the 5th and 6th spots.

        • You are joking right? DId the magic 8 ball give that to you? I’ll shoot Hurdle myself if he puts that nonsense lineup out there in a regular season game. In this theoretical lineup you have a combined 15 homers in the 5th and 6th slot. That is the dumbest thing i’ve ever heard. If they go with the moronic but possible 1-4 you have up there, they might as well have Mercer hit 5th, he actually has more power than anyone else on that list, or Harrison for that matter since he hit 12 homers one year and hits a ton of doubles and speed. In all seriousness though, You’d actually want Cervelli hitting behind Polanco and Harrison so they can use their speed and his (cervelli’s) contact hitting to potentially drive them in with a single. If you have Cervelli hit in front of them, your lineup is horribly off balanced. I think you’d be better off Putting Polanco 3rd and Marte 5th honestly if you were dead set on Jaso and Cutch at the top of the order against righties. Against lefties you put Morse at #5, Polanco probably at #7, Stewart down to #8, Harrison back at leadoff and probably Mercer at #6 (again if you go with the idiotic idea of cutch at #2)

          • You might want to read up on lineup optimization, which among other things suggest Cutch at #2 is one of the best spots for him. Depending on how confident one feels in Polanco’s 2nd half last season (and/or if you feel like he’s ready to take a step forward), batting him higher could be justified and I’m optimistic about Polanco. But based purely on his projected OBP (e.g., ZIPS has him at .317), he shouldn’t be batting higher than 6th. I’d be fine with him at 3rd to break up a string of RH bats, but I’d probably prefer Marte or Kang in that spot just so they get the extra AB’s over the course of a season.

            • I already have and it is horribly cookie cutter and doesn’t fit the personnel available on our roster. You might want to read up on logical lineup construction

          • At the other extreme of your statement is that batting order doesn’t make a huge difference in expected runs, so referring to any order as “idiotic” or “moronic” is a bit of hyperbole.

            • No. The batting order absolutely matters, but it doesn’t fit into a prescribed template. You have to construct it based on your personnel and the skills they have and take advantage of the upside your personnel has as well. Most of the conversation hereabout where OPS guys should hit, completely discounts the skills of the personnel that we as an organization have. That is what is giving me an extreme response. Putting Cutch at 2 is great in theory if you have power high strikeout guys to knock him in- we don’t, so it doesn’t fit. On our team, our high OPS guy IS our power guy, and everyone is glossing over that fact.

  • If it is a true competition, to this point it hasn’t been much of a competition at all.

    • That’s what I thought last year when it was Locke vs Worley and Worley was putting up way better numbers. They made the decision to go with Locke based on a whole lot of things that we just can’t see as fans of the team. And it was probably the right decision then too.

      • Worley did not pitch well last spring either, but you have a point that Worley was the lesser of 2 evil’s based solely off spring stats. Worley didn’t exactly make a great showing for himself with a 4.71 ERA knowing that he was fighting for a rotation spot no matter how you look at it though

        • How dare you use facts to disprove something I said. Funny, I thought I remembered him doing better than that.

          • He still pitched better than Locke…..but I think if he put up an ERA under 3.50, he would have gotten the 5th spot. I have nothign to back that up of course

      • Right, but we areother year into Locke’s career and he is closer to a bullpen piece with no upside than Nicasio at this point.

  • NH and Clint are certainly banking on us having a good (great?) bullpen:

    the bullpen is currently set up to allow for Clint Hurdle to shorten games and take starters out early. Huntington mentioned that the trade for Joakim Soria last year was in line with this approach, giving another premium arm late in the game.

    Do we have enough premium arms? At this point, i have my doubts.

    • Going to disagree with you on this one. Pirates bullpen has making of being elite this year.

      • *If* Watson and Melancon don’t regress on the back end then I think you have an argument, but that would be four consecutive years. Has to be damn near unprecedented in this day.

  • Re: Nicasio over RV

    Great News! My prayers have been answered

  • This is refreshing news. I’d much rather see RV as a long man.

  • After listening to Cole Figueroa on a podcast this weekend I’m really pulling for him to make the cut. Seems like a cool guy.

  • So, if Nicasio beats out Locke for a spot in the rotation, does Locke just go to the bullpen to take the spot we thought was going to Nicasio?

    • I feel like they think Locke still has some upside and he’s a lefty. I would think vogelsong is the odd man out here…

      • Although Vogelsong has been much better than Locke to start the season. For some reason it always feels like Locke can do no wrong, no matter how terrible he is.

        • You have to be really, really wary of spring training stats though.

          As fans, you have no idea what the pitcher is actually working on. One day it could be throwing everything in the zone, another working odd count stuff to work on its effectiveness, etc. Really tough to judge a guy on his ST numbers without knowing what he’s doing specifically.

          Locke isnt great, but he’s nowhere near as terrible as some fans want to think he is. Vogelsong could beat him out, but if its based purely off ST numbers thats dangerous imo.

          • “Dangerous” most certainly is not the most accurate term, I can assure you.

            • Tried to be somewhat giving to that situation lol. I should have included “to put it lightly” to give me sense of what that would be.

              If they are going to throw some in the pen, Vogelsong makes more sense than Locke for me.

          • I struggle to watch Locke pitch when he starts nibbling – very frustrating. I change the channel.

        • Well that’s interesting, considering the season doesn’t actually start for another two weeks.

          Quick, help us out with lottery numbers for the evening of Mrch 21st!

          • Interesting response. I think my comment was more general about Locke and fairly truthful. As for ST stats I do agree…although I am greatly impressed with Nicasio.

  • Just throwing this out there: I have an extra ticket for Wednesday`s game against the Orioles. Interested parties can call me at (407) 718-7588. Marty W.