Williams: The Real Depth Problem With the Pirates

My Morning Report article today focused on how much has gone wrong for the Pirates with their rotation in such a short amount of time. I made a comment over the weekend that Gio Gonzalez was a guy who the Pirates missed out on. But then I looked at when he agreed to sign, and saw that the Pirates had one of the best rotations in the majors at the time, and no injuries.

My view on starting depth is going to be different than a lot of people. The idea that you’ll have a guy in the bullpen who can put up a 4.00 ERA or better in the rotation when needed is a dream. It happens sometimes, but it’s not easy, and not a realistic plan.

I also feel that good depth often boils down to luck. The Pirates got some great depth in 2013 from Brandon Cumpton and Jeanmar Gomez. Neither player has pitched that well in the rotation since. Gomez had two good years in the bullpen, while Cumpton suffered injury after injury to derail his career.

The injuries to Cumpton didn’t happen following his 2.05 ERA in 10 starts in 2013. They happened after the 2014 season, when he had a 4.89 ERA in a similar depth role, making 10 starts again that year. Vance Worley also stepped up as a strong depth option, with a 2.85 ERA in 110.2 innings. He followed that up with some good work out of the bullpen the next two years, though not quite as good as his 2014 numbers, and fell off after the 2016 season.

Depth guys are depth guys for a reason. If they were good enough to give you a guaranteed solid replacement, they’d be in the majors and in a rotation. They either start off in the bullpen because they’re better options as relievers, or they start in Triple-A because they’re not good enough for an MLB club.

The best depth usually comes if you have a talented prospect in Triple-A who you can call up when he’s ready, or if you have a talented starting pitcher who begins the season injured, but can return mid-season. But that requires that your need for depth match up with the availability of that player.

There is such a strong focus this year on the Pirates’ starting pitching depth, and what they could have done better to prepare for the disaster they are currently in. At best, I think you could make an argument that they could have brought in a better sixth starter, which still leaves three rotation spots in question right now.

But maybe the focus shouldn’t even be on the pitching depth. Maybe by focusing so much on the pitching depth, we’re all tacitly buying into a strategy that was flawed from the start.

I started discussing the depth issue with Brian McElhinny this weekend after seeing the following tweet. But there’s something that stands out in that tweet which I didn’t get into until now.

The second part is covered in my thoughts above. You can agree or disagree with that. But focus on the first part.

“This team’s mantra going into the season was that the pitching would keep them in pretty much every game.”

That’s an accurate portrayal of how the Pirates were built. They were a team that entered the year with strong pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen. They had normal rotation depth, with JT Brubaker, Nick Kingham, and Steven Brault as early season options, and Mitch Keller as an option hopefully by June.

And that’s where everything gets derailed. We look at the strength of that pitching staff, we look at the strategy to build around pitching, then we immediately start analyzing how they could have had better depth to prepare for injuries to the pitching.

Maybe we need to be discussing the flawed strategy that involves placing your hopes of contending on pitching.

Every contender needs good pitching. Good pitching wins championships, and all of those mantras. But you need offense.

The Pirates entered the year with an offense that looked like it would be league-average at best. They had question marks all around the field. Would Josh Bell finally reach his offensive potential? Can Adam Frazier repeat his second half from 2018? Can Corey Dickerson repeat his 2018 season? Can Gregory Polanco return healthy and productive, and stay consistently healthy and productive? Which Starling Marte will show up? Can Jung Ho Kang get back to his old self after a long layoff, or can Colin Moran start reaching his potential? Will one of Kevin Newman or Erik Gonzalez emerge as a solid shortstop?

When you have that many question marks, and when the hope is a league average offense if enough goes right, then you’ve got a flawed plan.

Even this month, when Josh Bell has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball, the offense ranks bottom third in the league across many key categories. And with the rotation falling to pieces — whether that’s due to injuries, poor performance, or both — this would be a great time to have an offense in the top third, capable of picking up the slack.

MLB is not a league that is fair to teams like the Pirates. They already have the deck stacked against them due to the massive financial and competitive advantages that big market teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs have.

The last thing you want to do as a small market team is to further reduce your chances. When you’re going into a season with only half a team (strong pitching, poor offense), you reduce your chances. When the half team you are focused on is the one that gets injured most often, you put yourself at risk to fully reduce your chances.

I’ve seen the argument wondering what the Pirates could have done with their offense. I’d agree that they weren’t loaded with opportunities for upgrades. But they had opportunities.

The most glaring was at shortstop. They went with Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman, with Neal Huntington saying those two were projected internally to be Freddy Galvis and Jordy Mercer. If that’s the goal, then why not get Galvis, who was affordable?

I’d agree you needed to give Adam Frazier a chance to show he was legit at second base. But where was the backup plan if he didn’t repeat? Pablo Reyes and his one month of MLB success, which was higher than any of his minor league numbers? Hoping that Kevin Kramer would be ready and wouldn’t have any issues this time in his jump to the majors?

Josh Bell and Colin Moran looked like similar situations at the start of the year. Two guys with a lot of raw power who have yet to show results consistently in the majors. One of them has worked out and one hasn’t. The Pirates didn’t have good backup plans to those guys either. This doesn’t matter now with Bell, but it does at third.

The backup plan, or the guy competing with Moran, was Jung Ho Kang, and he came with his own question marks. They haven’t worked out. Maybe it wasn’t a great idea to trade David Freese last year and go with Kang. Freese was a 2 WAR player the previous two years, and looks to be returning to that this year. He’d be a good option, with the hope that Moran upgrades over him, or Ke’Bryan Hayes arrives and does well down the line.

I liked their addition of Lonnie Chisenhall as the replacement for Polanco, and the backup outfielder when Polanco returned. That hasn’t worked out, but the addition of Melky Cabrera has worked out, so it’s hard to complain about the outfield approach.

But that outfield approach kind of highlights the problem with the rest of the offense. They added Chisenhall as a promising fourth outfielder and early season replacement. They didn’t stop there. They also added Cabrera as a backup plan. They had JB Shuck as another backup plan. Then they had Bryan Reynolds and Jason Martin as prospect depth.

They needed that quality of depth at some of their other positions. They didn’t need just prospects in the minors, or one depth option. They needed multiple options. The irony is that the outfield looked like the strongest part of the position player group, and it’s also the area where they added the most depth. They needed that same approach for the infield positions that had so many question marks.

The questions that we ask about the outfield this year are “Who goes down when X returns?” Those are the questions you want to have. And you don’t have to look hard to find an answer to the question “Who will replace this guy?” when there’s an injury in the outfield. That’s the kind of situation they need in the infield.

This is no longer a league where you can run out half a team and expect to contend. Even if the plan worked out for the Pirates — and it still might — the upside is a Wild Card spot. The teams who are winning it all are the teams shooting for the division, trying to be one of the best overall teams in baseball, embracing their window to contend, and going all-in to get there. That still isn’t the approach the Pirates are showing.

Maybe the Pirates could have added better depth for their sixth starting spot, and maybe not. They definitely could have had better depth for their offense, specifically in the infield. And that’s costing them just as much, or more than the lack of an upgrade for their sixth starter role.

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.

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