Our hypothetical minor league season continues with the Indianapolis pitching staff. The Indy staff figured to be a work in progress for a while and probably would be if the season somehow started in the foreseeable future. That’s because of pitchers in various stages of rehab. Steve Brault and Clay Holmes both got hurt during spring training. Chad Kuhl and Edgar Santana are both returning from Tommy John surgery, and J.T. Brubaker (pictured above) from a forearm strain. The early season staff figured to be structured around these rehabs.
What the staff doesn’t have, oddly, is the number of minor league veterans that the Pirates added to the ranks of their AAA hitters. They added only a couple of pitchers, despite the meltdown of their pitching depth in 2019.
This won’t be a prospect-laden rotation. Brubaker and Cody Ponce are the only starters who unequivocally qualify as more than depth guys. Brubaker will almost certainly get a chance in the bigs at some point if he can stay healthy and effective. I can’t get too excited about Ponce as a starter. He had a middling record in that role before Milwaukee moved him to relief, but the Pirates seem to regard him as a starter so I guess he’ll get a chance in AAA.
I’m guessing Kuhl will be in the rotation at the start of our hypothetical season, although the Pirates weren’t giving him much of a workload in spring training. Brault would probably be in the rotation for whatever rehab he went on, but I doubt he’d stay at Indy very long.
Two other pitchers who are very likely to be in the rotation are James Marvel and Hector Noesi. In the event of another meltdown, we could see either or both of them in the majors. Marvel was a bit of a surprise subtraction from the 40-man roster last fall. Noesi is the one minor league depth starter the Pirates added. He had an undistinguished record in the minors until he spent three years in Korea. Then he pitched well as a starter last year in the crazy hitting environment of the PCL.
The Pirates have three other pitchers who spent part of last season at Altoona. Cam Vieaux divided his season between AAA and AA, and struggled at the higher level. Pedro Vasquez had a strong season in AA and got a cameo in AAA. Domingo Robles split his season between Bradenton and Altoona, and finished strongly. Of the three, Vasquez probably has the most potential, although the other two have the advantage of being left-handed. All three could see time in AAA, but they’re going to need opportunities to open up. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see all three open in AA.
There are a slew of pitchers who could open the season in AAA. By my count, there are about 19 relievers who could be at Indy, and that’s assuming nothing unexpected happens, like the Pirates assigning Nick Mears there. At least two of these 19 will have to be with the Pirates, assuming Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Rich Rodriguez, Nick Burdi, Michael Feliz and Chris Stratton open in the majors. Two others of that 19–Holmes and Dovydas Neverauskas–are out of options, but Holmes will probably go to Indy on rehab and it’s conceivable Neverauskas could clear waivers.
That leaves . . . well, way too many relievers to fit on the roster. Inevitably, some of these guys are going to move on. I’ll go more or less from most to least promising.
To begin with, Edgar Santana has already proven himself in the majors. I’m not sure why the Pirates optioned him out. He looked ready during spring training, but maybe they weren’t convinced. Or maybe they sent him down because they wanted to keep other pitchers who couldn’t be optioned. Or maybe it was some interplay between the roster rules and the coronavirus situation.
The two top relief prospects are Blake Weiman and Blake Cederlind. You may remember Cederlind from spring training . . . something about hair or whatever. Oh, and he throws hard. Weiman is more of a finesse lefty who, so far, has gotten hitters out with little trouble. They provide some potential relief upside, as will Mears if the Pirates bump him up.
A couple of veteran lefties could make the major league roster or could open at Indy. Nik Turley has missed two years due to Tommy John and a PED suspension, but he looked really good before spring training got shut down. Going into camp, Robbie Erlin seemed to have a good shot at the making the team, but he didn’t look so good. He can opt out if he doesn’t make the Pirates’ roster. Between the two, Turley seems an easy choice to me.
Then there are the struggling prospects. Luis Escobar was one of the team’s best pitching prospects a couple years ago, but his command hasn’t improved and finally cost him a 40-man roster spot. Lefty Brandon Waddell saw his velocity jump as a reliever, but he’s struggled badly in AAA. Neverauskas hasn’t gotten results commensurate with his velocity, but maybe the new regime can do something with him. Geoff Hartlieb is similar to Neverauskas; impressive radar readings, but serious issues at the major league level due to command problems. Montana DuRapau has always gotten excellent results in the minors, but his stuff didn’t seem to play in the majors and he may be mainly just a depth guy at this point.
There are plenty of sub-replacement level veterans available. That would be Yacksel Rios, Williams Jerez, Miguel Del Pozo and Sam Howard. All but Rios are lefties. He and Howard are on the 40-man and have options. I can’t honestly say I find any of these guys interesting, so . . . whatever.
Finally, there are several pitchers who could fill in as needed. Joel Cesar, Matt Eckelman, Beau Sulser and lefty Sean Keselica all probably profile as organizational pitchers, with the possible exception of Cesar. Any or all of them could open at Altoona, waiting for a spot to open up in AAA.
Our hypothetical Indianapolis pitching staff:
SONG OF THE DAY
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
By John Dreker
Three former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date and one trade of note.
On March 26, 1988, the Pirates sent pitcher Tim Drummond and catcher Mackey Sasser to the New York Mets in exchange for first baseman Randy Milligan and minor league pitcher Scott Henion. The Pirates acquired Sasser at the 1987 trading deadline for pitcher Don Robinson. It was the first season in the majors for the 25-year-old catcher, who went 0-for-4 in two games for the Giants and hit .217 in 12 games for the Pirates. Drummond had made his major league debut that previous September, getting six relief appearances. The 23-year-old pitcher had a 2.97 ERA and ten saves in 46 appearances at Triple-A in 1987 before his call-up. Henion had just turned 22 prior to the trade. He was a single-A reliever in his second year of pro ball. He had a 3.34 ERA and 12 saves in 54 games. Milligan was 26 at the time, coming off a Triple-A season that saw him hit .326 with 29 homers, 103 RBIs and 91 walks. He was a 1981 first round draft pick of the Mets, who just saw his first big league action that September.
The Pirates didn’t get much out of this trade. Henion pitched poorly in one year in High-A ball before moving on to the Expos organization for one last season. Milligan made the Opening Day roster but never got going with the bat, hitting .220 with three homers in 40 games before being sent back to the minors. In November of 1988, he was traded to the Orioles for minor league pitcher Pete Blohm, who never made the majors. Sasser ended up playing five seasons in New York, hitting .283 in 420 games. He eventually made in back to Pittsburgh to finish his career in 1995. Drummond never pitched for the Mets. He was one of the five pitchers sent to the Twins in exchange for Frank Viola at the 1989 trading deadline. He pitched parts of two seasons with the Twins before finishing his career in the minors in 1992.
Eric Hacker, pitcher for the 2009 Pirates. He was a 23rd round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2002. Hacker spent seven seasons in the minors for New York, although he missed all of 2004 and 2006 with injuries. The Pirates acquired him on May 16, 2009 in exchange for pitcher Romulo Sanchez. Hacker reported to Triple-A, where he went 5-5, 4.02 in 21 starts. The Pirates called him up for his Major League debut in late September and he pitched three times out of the bullpen, with all three being one inning appearances. He was granted free agency after the season, then signed with the Giants for 2010. After spending a full season in the minors, he signed with the Twins for 2011 and made two more relief appearances in the big leagues. His last MLB stint was with the 2012 Giants, where he made three relief appearances and his only big league start. Hacker then pitched six seasons in Korea, last playing pro ball in 2018.
Jack McCarthy, left fielder for the 1898-99 Pirates. After spending parts of two seasons in the majors with the Reds (1893-94), he played the entire 1895 season for Indianapolis of the Western League, where he hit .420 in 121 games. Despite that season, he spent the next two seasons back in Indianapolis, still as a member of the Reds organization. The Pirates acquired McCarthy in a seven-player trade with the Reds on November 10, 1897, in which the Pirates gave up star outfielder Mike Smith and 30-game winner Pink Hawley, while getting back five players. McCarthy took over in left field for Smith, and while he didn’t provide the total offense that Smith did, he still hit .289 with 78 RBIs and 75 runs scored in 137 games. In 1899 he improved on those numbers, hitting .306 with 109 runs scored. When the Pirates completed the Honus Wagner trade with Louisville on December 8, 1899, they acquired Hall of Fame left fielder Fred Clarke, leaving no room for McCarthy. Four days after the Louisville trade, the Pirates sold McCarthy to the Chicago Orphans for $2,000. He would go on to play eight more seasons in the majors, finishing his career with a .287 average in 1,092 games.
Morrie Critchley, pitcher for the 1882 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He made his debut for the Alleghenys on May 8, 1882. It was the fourth game in the history of the franchise, a team that started with the formation of the American Association that year. Critchley was facing a Cincinnati Red Stockings team that had just put 19 runs on the board one game earlier. He would allow seven hits and a walk but when the game ended, he had a shutout in his Major League debut. One month later, without pitching another game, he was released by the Alleghenys. He joined another AA team, the St Louis Brown Stockings, and made four starts for them with much different results than his game in Pittsburgh. Critchley went 0-4 and allowed 31 runs in 34 innings, striking out just two batters. He never pitched in the majors again and has no known minor league records after 1882. He was already 27 years old when organized minor league ball started in 1877. After his playing days, he occasionally umpired major league games. With his birth date of 3/26/1850, he is the earliest born pitcher in franchise history. Only two position players, Bob Ferguson and Deacon White, were born prior to Critchley. He is one of just four pitchers in Pirates franchise history to win his only game pitched for the team.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.