Pirates 2020 Preview: The Pitchers

This is a better subject than this year’s hitters.  The most interesting thing about half the team’s position players will be waiting to see how long it is before they go away.  The pitchers may or may not actually be better than the hitters this year, but nearly all of them at least present some upside.  There’s also the possibility that a new, more analytically driven front office and pitching coach will help some of these guys step forward before they go elsewhere instead of afterward.

It looks like all the pitchers below will be on the team initially, except Keone Kela.  That’s an 11-man bullpen.  Clint Hurdle must be gritting his teeth in envy.

Starters:  Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Mitch Keller, Steve Brault, Derek Holland, Chad Kuhl, J.T. Brubaker

The first five evidently are going to be the rotation.  I’m including Kuhl and Brubaker here because they probably profile as starters long-term and could end up in piggybacking type duty in the short term.  I imagine the Pirates will be managing workloads on the fly in this odd situation.

With Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer gone, the established starters are Musgrove and Williams.  Neither of them needs much introduction.  A lot of the analysts really like Musgrove and think there’s a lot more upside with him, so he’s certainly a major Oscar Marin project.  Musgrove has been prone to nagging injuries, so you could argue that a 60-game season is a good, safe way for him to get acclimated to the new regime.

The analytical types have always been less enthused about Williams.  He’s so easy to root for, though, that you just have to hope he recaptures some of the 2018 magic.  I’m pretty sure xFIP doesn’t incorporate mad twitter skills yet, so maybe there’s some hidden value here.

Keller broke pitching statistics last year.  All of them.  A 7.13 ERA, .475 (??!!) BABIP, 3.47 xFIP and 12.2 K/9.  Plus, 1.3 fWAR in just 11 starts.  By itself, a mediocre changeup can’t explain this massive set of contradictions.  You’d really like to see him get a full season with Marin, but in any case he’s by far the most consequential question mark heading into the semi-season.

The two lefties are also question marks, although without quite so much upside.  Brault is yet another pitcher whose stuff seems better than the results.  Plus, he’s among the top ten current reasons why the DH sucks.  For literally half of last season (apart from some missed July starts due to a sore shoulder), he was the team’s best starter, and not just because it was a terrible staff.  Maybe he wore down or the sore shoulder caught up with him.  Holland has had a career of very pronounced ups and downs, nearly always tied to his HR rate.  In a normal season, the best-case scenario would be a strong first half that made him an attractive trade target.  Sixty days probably isn’t enough time for that following a bad year in 2019.

Kuhl and Brubaker are both coming off injuries, specifically Tommy John and a forearm strain, respectively.  The Pirates still seem to see Kuhl as a starter going forward, which is fine.  There’s a case to be made that he was one of the guys who suffered most from the old regime’s inept pitching strategies.  Under the circumstances, two or three months in AAA would have been ideal, but there is no AAA, so don’t be disheartened if he gets torched for a bit.  Pretty much the same could be said of Brubaker, who missed nearly all of 2019.  I’m not sure how much of a shot he’s going to get in the mini-season, though.

Relievers:  Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, Michael Feliz, Richard Rodriguez, Clay Holmes, Chris Stratton, Dovydas Neverauskas, Robbie Erlin, Nik Turley

The bizarre season MLB is embarking upon may make the Pirates’ bullpen a frustrating exercise.  This crew could be anything from pretty good to a dumpster fire.  The latter wouldn’t have been a complete disaster in a full season.  There are a bunch of relievers with interesting upside, like Blake Cederlind, Nick Mears and Blake Weiman, maybe even Braeden Ogle or Shea Murray, who could have earned a chance in the show with good first halves in the minors.  Having a few relievers flop might have led to some interesting breakouts.  (Cederlind could still have a shot.)  The team could have done a lot of sorting-through given enough time.

Anyway, like Holland, Kela’s first best Pirate destiny would have been as trade bait after a strong first half.  Hopefully, he has mild or no symptoms.

That leaves Crick and Burdi as the most likely closer candidates.  Crick is still a question mark.  Maybe his struggles for much of last year were the result of tipping his pitches.  He missed plenty of bats, so there’s reason for optimism.  With Burdi . . . well, just hope for good health.  The stuff is electric.  Oddly, Burdi still has to spend just over a month on the major league roster to satisfy the Rule 5 requirements, but that should be a non-issue.

Along with Crick, the most established relievers here are Feliz and Rodriguez.  Feliz is incredibly frustrating.  He’ll look like a monster, blowing away a couple hitters, and then, Boom!  The Pirates think his slider is greatly improved now.  He already missed lots of bats, so we’ll see.  Rodriguez’ fastball lost a good deal of movement in 2019 and his swinging strike percentage went with it.  He has only decent velocity, so if the pitch doesn’t rebound, gophers will thrive.

Holmes and Neverauskas are promising arms who provide yet another chance for the new regime to develop pitchers the old front office couldn’t succeed with.  Holmes, in fact, is some people’s choice for the pitcher most likely to take a big leap forward with improved coaching.  What he mainly needs to do is simply throw more strikes, a lot more.  He’s an extreme groundball pitcher (like, really extreme) who recently has improved his ability to miss bats.  Neverauskas has struggled to do more than light up radar guns; he’s also strike-zone challenged and his secondary stuff hasn’t come together.  Both pitchers are out of options.

Stratton, Turley and Erlin are the veteran pickups.  Stratton’s calling card is elite spin rate.  He’s nearly 30 now and never seemed to do much with it, but things seemed to come together for him after he joined the Pirates last year.  That even included a good strikeout rate, which was never a strength for him.  Turley hasn’t thrown a pitch in anger for nearly three years.  He’s interesting because he’s a lefty with good size and solid velocity, and he showed an ability to miss bats in the upper minors after moving to relief.  He’s a complete unknown at this point, but the Pirates seem to believe there’s something there.  Erlin is a finesse lefty who’s had, at best, mediocre traditional stats the last couple years but pretty decent advanced stats.  He’s been hurt by a low strand rate and high BABIP, so he may offer at least a little upside.

With a staff that has so many mysteries and question mark, what matters most is where things stand at the end of the season, not at the beginning.  Of course, a longer season would be better, but there are reasons to watch a lot of these guys.  Just bring along some patience.