This past week I was in Indianapolis to see the Pirates’ Triple-A squad for five games. I like to see Indianapolis in the middle of May, as it allows for a month and a half of stats to form a baseline of expectations, along with a good amount of time for players to start making adjustments. The timing also gives me a good feel for who can help the Pirates this year, and when.
It was last year around this time that I came away from Indianapolis thinking that Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl would be the guys who would take rotation spots in the majors in the second half, with Tyler Glasnow possibly being an option late in the year, but not being a guy who could have helped last year’s rotation. That was at a time when the Pirates desperately needed rotation help.
This time around, the Pirates aren’t as desperate for help in the rotation, but could use a boost on the position player side. However, their depth in Triple-A is still strongly on the pitching side, with not as much help coming on the position player side, and no big boosts that are ready today (though one big boost should arrive later this season). Here is a breakdown of the depth I saw in Indianapolis this past week, and where the Pirates could get help in 2017.
At this point last year, the Pirates would have killed for starting pitching depth. They had just that, leading to Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams all making their debuts during the 2016 season, with Taillon and Kuhl securing rotation spots.
The rotation depth stands out as the strongest part of the team again this year, and that was featured in my look at Indianapolis this past week. Pretty much every starting pitcher had the best start of their 2017 season, showing off why they could help the Major League rotation this year.
The biggest help this year could come from Clay Holmes, who was very impressive this past week. Holmes made two starts, combining to allow four earned runs in 12.2 innings, with a 15:0 K/BB ratio. Holmes showed good results with his sinker-cutter combo, while also showing the ability to mix in his curveball and changeup. He’s not ready just yet, as shown by him getting hit pretty hard in the sixth inning of his second start of the week, which isn’t a situation that is unique to that outing. He’s on the right track, and if he shows more of what he showed this past week, he could step up as a guy who could be more than a back of the rotation starter, possibly providing the biggest help from this group this year.
The rest of the options are more back of the rotation options, but can provide some solid depth. Steven Brault gave up one run in six innings, with just one walk and four strikeouts. He did a good job this week of attacking the zone, rather than being too fine and working the edges of the plate. That will be key for him moving forward, as his control and effectiveness are reduced when he works around the edges too often — a problem seen last year in his MLB debut.
Drew Hutchison joins Brault as an option for the short-term. He made two starts last week, and I saw the better outing. In the first outing, he struggled with his control, although that didn’t impact his run line. His control faltered a bit in the second start, but he was able to correct the problem and avoid any big innings, leading to only one walk in six innings of work. Unlike Brault, Hutchison is more effective using his off-speed stuff on the edges of the plate. However, this only works if he maintains his fastball command early in the count to get ahead of hitters.
Tyler Eppler is similar to Holmes in that he’s not ready just yet, but could be ready later in the year. Eppler doesn’t have the same upside as Holmes, projecting as more of a back of the rotation starter in the future. That could change if his new cutter turns into a strikeout offering, which was the case when I saw him this past week in a start where he pitched seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts. However, he followed that up by allowing four runs in six innings in his next start, with four strikeouts. He’s had starts like that before, including a few right before his dominant outing this past week. He’s still got work to do in Triple-A, and will need to get more consistent with the new breaking pitch in order to emerge as more than a back of the rotation guy.
The one guy I didn’t see this week was Nick Kingham. He joined Indianapolis after a rehab outing in Bradenton, and is expected to make his debut tomorrow. Kingham joins Holmes as a guy who has more than back of the rotation upside, and if he returns looking like the pitcher he was prior to his Tommy John surgery, he could be the best option from this group. There’s some hope of that happening. Kingham only issued one walk in all of his starts this year during his build-up, and part of what fueled his game before was his strong control, mixed with two above-average off-speed pitches. We’ll get an idea what he can do soon, now that he’s up with Indianapolis, and he could be an option for the big leagues in the second half.
The bullpen isn’t a huge issue in Pittsburgh, although it is something that can be improved. I don’t know if I would task any of the current Triple-A relievers to immediately step in as the eighth inning guy in Pittsburgh, but they do have a few potential options for the late inning.
The big guy who stands out is Edgar Santana. I saw him pitch four scoreless innings last week, throwing five strikeouts in the process. He’s got a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with movement and a sharp breaking slider that gets swings and misses even when the hitter knows it is coming. He’s definitely going to help in the big leagues this year, and has the best chance to be an impact guy in the later innings, after adjusting to the new level.
Dovydas Neverauskas is the other big arm in the Indianapolis bullpen. He features an upper-90s two-seamer, and a slider that he throws two different ways, leading to two different styles of breaking pitches. He threw two shutout innings with two strikeouts when I saw him last week. He’s already made his MLB debut this year, and could be back up when the Pirates need additional relief help.
Other relievers who could help are Pat Light, Angel Sanchez, and A.J. Schugel. Light is a sinkerball pitcher who had some control issues in one outing I saw, but got some easy ground ball outs in the other outing. Sanchez is a hard thrower who also had control issues in one outing I saw (the same outing, and the same inning as Light), but showed some good strikeout stuff in the other appearance. Schugel doesn’t look like the same pitcher as last year, getting hit a lot more. He could still re-emerge as a middle relief option later in the year.
The biggest area where the Pirates need help this year is on offense. Unfortunately, there aren’t any big short-term solutions in Indianapolis right now. Part of that is due to the fact that their best short-term solution, Jose Osuna, is already in Pittsburgh. They have Max Moroff and Chris Bostick hitting well, but at this point they’re both bench options, and their Triple-A production will see a drop off when they jump to the majors.
The best option in Indianapolis is Austin Meadows, although he’s not ready at the moment. He can help out defensively, but his offense needs to pick up on a more consistent basis against upper level hitters. He showed some good stuff this past week, and his manager said he was showing some of the best bat speed of the season during that stretch. Hopefully this is a sign that he’s starting to get on the right track, and could be a guy who helps the Pirates in some form during the second half. I like his swing enough that I think he will get over his current issues and get back on track to helping out in the majors this year.
Two other prospects at the level who were in MLB Spring Training this year are Eric Wood and Erich Weiss. Both have been struggling overall at the plate, but both showed some positive signs this past week, making some hard contact. Elias Diaz could provide help behind the plate, but only when there is an injury. Barrett Barnes just joined the level, and could be an option to help out offensively, but that all depends on him adjusting to the Triple-A level quickly. So far, he only has two games at the level, so he shouldn’t be viewed as an option for the majors any time soon.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.