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Monday, December 5, 2022

With Joe Musgrove Lurking, Nick Kingham Likely Victim of Numbers Game

PITTSBURGH — Nick Kingham will, in all probability, once again stand astride the pitching rubber on the PNC Park mound Saturday night with the Padres in town.

For as sharp as Joe Musgrove has been on his rehab journey through the Pirates’ minor-league system — how does 5 2/3 perfect innings in Triple-A over the weekend sound? — it sounds like the Pirates want him to throw 100 pitches before they take him off the disabled list.

On Sunday, Neal Huntington characterized Musgrove’s post-shoulder pain build-up as “very positive,” but the general manager also noted that just two Pirates during his tenure have finished rehab assignments without reaching the century mark in pitches thrown.

Since those two outliers were thirtysomething veterans in Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, the Pirates won’t be making an exception for the 25-year-old Musgrove, no matter how great he’s looked while donning the uniforms of the Marauders, Curve, and Indians.

“Obviously he’s been really efficient and effective,” Huntington said Sunday prior to the Pirates’ series finale against the Giants. “Every time we’ve had to extend his outing, whether it be in the bullpen or into a sixth inning (Saturday) night. His pitch count was so low. The weapons have been good. The fastball has played well. It was up to 97 (miles per hour) and sat 93, 94. The breaking balls were effective.”

That’s all well and good, but while those developments are promising for the Pirates as an organization, Kingham’s near future in the majors will likely be limited to one more fill-in start Saturday and then a holding pattern.

(The healing process for Jameson Taillon’s lacerated finger is something to watch in this regard, although the fact that Kingham started Monday night for Triple-A Indianapolis indicates Taillon is good to go for his scheduled start against the White Sox on Wednesday afternoon.)

Injuries could always crop up, but it seems Kingham will remain with Indy in order to be ready on a moment’s notice for a spot start or two.

“The reason we’ve often left young starting pitchers in Triple-A (in recent years) is you need seven, eight, nine starting pitchers over the course of the season, as we’ve already seen this year,” Huntington said. “To begin the season with your (number) six or seven starter in the bullpen is one thing, but to get into July with them not being able to step-in in a spot start, that could impact Nick. … We have to make sure we have a guy ready to go tomorrow.”

Huntington didn’t completely tip his hand regarding Kingham. And, to be fair, there are worse positions to be in than the first guy on the call-up list should something go awry.

“Nick may be in that unfortunate situation, or someone else may be in that unfortunate situation to go back to Triple-A and be an option for us as a starter,” the GM said. “We’d much rather be in a position to have an extra starter or two who can help us win at the major-league level. We’ll address that when everybody is healthy. It’s a funny game.”

This might not be the most popular approach with a fan base that’s seen Kingham post a 2.92 ERA in his first two starts with the Pirates, highlighted by a .159 opponents’ batting average and a 16-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Huntington himself admitted Sunday that the starting rotation has been “scuffling” as of late, to the point that its collective 4.45 Run Average is now below the National League average of 4.29.

But when the starting pitcher struggling the most — Iván Nova — is also the one with the most veteran status and the biggest contract, that doesn’t typically allow for a pure meritocracy to prevail.

Not that Kingham is a lock to jump into the rotation and excel, anyway. Since his most recent big-league appearance, he’s allowed seven runs on 14 hits and four walks in 11 minor-league innings. (The second of those two starts occurred in Double-A, so the Pirates could keep Kingham on a five-day routine leading into Saturday.)

Much like with a bullpen that could probably use some restructuring, the Pirates’ position near the top of the NL Central should inspire urgency in optimizing their available assets.

“You look at the National League and it’s very top-heavy,” Huntington said. “We’re going to have play the way we’re playing and even get better.”

For now, though, the Pirates’ self-evaluation process will keep Kingham on the back burner, waiting for a longer-term opportunity.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Huntington said.

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