PITTSBURGH — When Jameson Taillon landed on the disabled list last week, the Pirates had plenty of options to replace him in the rotation.
Steven Brault, Drew Hutchison, and Josh Lindblom were all pitching in Indianapolis with major-league experience. Tyler Eppler and Clay Holmes are promising prospects that have both pitched well this season.
But there wasn’t a lot of debate about who would get to start Monday in Los Angeles. The Pirates wanted to go with Trevor Williams. Williams, 25, had started his entire career before transitioning to the bullpen at the beginning of this season. He’d pitched okay in a long-relief role, posting a 5.40 ERA and a 5.31 FIP in 11.2 innings.
Typically, the move from starting to the bullpen is a one-way street, especially in the Pirates organization. The Pirates want their most talented pitchers to be starters in the minor leagues, regardless of what they project to be in the majors. As they rise through the system, they reach a point where their stuff just doesn’t play well enough to go deep into games as a starter and they’re moved to relief.
It happened at Double-A for Tony Watson and short season ball for Dovydas Neverauskas. With Williams moving to the ‘pen after losing the battle with Tyler Glasnow for the final spot in the starting rotation, it looked like that might be the case for him, as well.
But that’s not what Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington had in mind.
“He was our sixth, depth starter option for us breaking camp and he’s put himself in a position for this opportunity,” Hurdle said. “He’s got a three- or four-pitch mix that we want to see. He needs to keep being aggressive. Right now, he’s been handling the right-handers pretty well, left-handers are the ones that have dinged him a little bit. It’s a great time for him to get the ball and go.”
Williams has only made one career major-league start when he threw four innings and allowed three runs against the Cincinnati Reds as part of a doubleheader last September. But the Pirates weren’t ready to give up on him as a starter, yet.
“This is what he’s always done. There’s going to be a comfort and a commitment zone that his body is already acclimated to,” Hurdle said. “Hutchison needs to continue to pitch (in Indianapolis). Brault is in the place we thought he was last year when we called him up. He’s getting better. We want a guy that’s been in the mix. … We believe this is our best option and opportunity. Williams is ahead of Brault, ahead of Hutchison right now. Those guys stay in line, continue to pitch, provide us depth options if we need them. Williams gets the ball and shows us what he can do.”
But is it fair to ask a player that’s been pitching in long relief for a month to come out and be a successful starter? Hurdle said he thinks given Williams’ history, it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch. But there are different expectations.
“He’s started almost all of his career, so the hesitation part was him going to the bullpen and trying to figure that out,” Hurdle said. “We told him to go out there and hunt outs and see how far that takes him. I don’t want him to try to think, ‘I need to go five innings, I need to go six innings.’ I anticipate him to be able to throw — I’m just guessing a number — around 80 pitches. We’ll see if that works. That might be fair, that might not be. That might be too much.”
Though the move was made publicly on Saturday, Williams had been made aware as soon as Taillon reported an issue with his groin after his previous start. So he’s had time to prepare for his start like any other starting pitcher would in a five-day cycle. He last threw two innings on May 3 in Cincinnati, which will give him four days in between appearances.
“I had to be ready every night coming out of the bullpen,” Williams said. “I have four days to prepare as a starter, so my routine is different for my throwing. I’m going to treat this as a start, but it’s going to be with a reliever mentality. That’s until I get stretched out and they tell me I’m going to be starting for a while. I’m going to go about it, give it the best I’ve got that day and get to the sixth inning. … . It’s not going to take too long to get stretched out again, but it’s just getting out there every fifth day again.”
Williams said he doesn’t have a preference when it comes to starting or relieving — he just wanted to pitch at the major-league level and help the Pirates win games. When it comes to long-term plans, he doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to want to know whether this will be one start or many.
“I’m thankful Clint trusts me as a starter and gave me that spot,” he said. “We’re going to go out there. Monday, I’m going to be starting. On Tuesday, we’ll reassess whether I stay in that role or if I’ll move back into the bullpen. … They didn’t tell me anything. It’ll probably be how the game is dictated. I want the to pry the ball out of my hand at the end of the game and just lay everything on the line.”