Spring Training Preview Part 1—The Last Two Rotation Spots

This is the North Shore Nine’s four-part Spring Training preview for 2017. We will break down the four biggest stories as the Pirates report to Bradenton this week to mark the beginning of a new season.  

The Pirates arrive in Bradenton, Florida this week with most of their starting roles and assignments set for the 2017 season except for one massive question mark—who will fill out the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the rotation this season?

We know three spots are etched in stone. Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon are the locks for the rotation. Cole arrives to camp healthy and already ahead of last spring’s schedule as he looks for that rebound year after an injury-filled 2016 season. Nova comes in as the fan favorite after inking a 3-year, $26M with the Pirates this offseason and praising the city of Pittsburgh in the process. Nova looks to continue his 11-start brilliance with the Bucs, posting a 3.06 ERA and 2.62 FIP in 64.2 innings down the stretch in ’16. And Taillon arrives in the Florida sunshine looking to build on his first healthy season in three years where he provided the Pirates with 18 solid starts (124 ERA+).

These are the knowns, but who’s competing for the last two spots in the rotation? I think the Bucs have four legitimate options to fill out the rotation. Let’s break each of them down.

Tyler Glasnow checks in as the Pirates top prospect and overall the No. 9 prospect in MLB. The 6’8″ righty from California is the future for the Pirates and already got his first taste of the big leagues in 2016.

Why he should be in rotation: Glasnow blew through the minor leagues with a 2.26 ERA in 114 starts and did it via a superb swing-and-miss three-pitch arsenal (31.7 K%). He posted an 11.6 K/9 in the minors and featured his high velocity fastball and plus 12-6 curveball in seven appearances (four starts) with the Pirates last season. He struck out 24 batters in 23.1 innings of work with a 4.24 ERA and 4.26 FIP in his first taste in the Majors. Glasnow projects to be a frontline starter and has the highest ceiling of all the other options for the rotation. Still just 23 years old, not only does he have the highest ceiling, he could also pitch himself into one of the Pirates best pitchers this season. ZiPS projections give Glasnow an optimistic outlook and actually projects him to be the Pirates second best starting pitcher in 2017. Plugging Glasnow in the rotation with a chance to prove himself would most likely be Hurdle’s best bet.

Why he shouldn’t: Only one word could derailed Glasnow’s chance at his rotation and possibly his career—walks. Not only did he rack up the strikeouts throughout his minor league career, he also piled up a ton of walks. Glasnow walked 4.56 batters per nine in the minors and his control problems were magnified in the Majors last year with 13 walks in 23.1 innings and led to some rough innings. The bottom line is fairly simple for Glasnow…limit the walks and the sky’s the limit for him. He has stated that he started to feel more comfortable in his last couple appearances last season so we’ll see if he builds on that this spring. If Glasnow doesn’t make this rotation, it’ll be because of the walks.

Drafted in the 9th round of the 2013 draft, Chad Kuhl reached the Majors just three years later after putting up a 2.37 ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis before getting the call to Pittsburgh. Never a top prospect, Kuhl has pitched his way into the conversation by dominating every level in the minors and sits with the inside track to the rotation in 2017.

Why he should be in rotation: After reaching the Majors three years after he was drafted, Kuhl held his own in the Majors. In 14 starts last season for the Bucs, Kuhl produced a 4.20 ERA and an even better 3.95 FIP in 70 innings of work. He was a league average pitcher (100 ERA+) in his first taste of the Show, and three of his starts were against the eventual World Champ Cubbies. I wrote in more detail why I believe Kuhl would be a fine choice for the rotation earlier this offseason here. But in short, he issues very few walks (6.6 BB%), features a decent 44.3 GB% last year and had a 3.13 ERA against everyone else but the Cubs lineup. Also, having a rotation of Cole and Kuhl (pronounced “cool”) would be awesome.

Why he shouldn’t: Despite last season being his best of his young professional career, it was also Kuhl’s worst year against lefties. Left-handed hitters rake off Kuhl in the minors and in the Majors. They recorded a .854 OPS in the Majors while Kuhl had much better success against righties (.676 OPS). These numbers were more of the same in the minors last year too. This, however, was a one-year blip and Kuhl produced much better seasons in the minors from 2013-2015, never allowing higher than a .688 OPS against lefthanders. The low strikeout totals are also a concern (6.8 K/9) if he can’t developed more of an out pitch especially to lefties.

Drew Hutchison (no N) came to Pittsburgh in the Francisco Liriano deal that saw the Pirates dump Liriano’s salary and his 5+ ERA at the cost of two prospects. The Pirates were left with money to sign Nova and Daniel Hudson and an unknown former prospect in Hutchison. Working in his favor is Hutchison’s $2.3M salary in his second arbitration year that I doubt the Pirates will want at Triple-A.

Why he should be in rotation: Throw last season out and actually look at Hutchison’s numbers when he started with the Blue Jays. The righthander from Lakeland, Florida has the most experience of a Major League starter than any of these options here. And he wasn’t that bad. From 2012-15, Hutchison made 71 starts with the Blue Jays, posting a 4.92 ERA but a 4.16 FIP. Keep in mind, this was while pitching in the AL East and the Rogers Centre at the young age of 21-24. He made his ML debut as a 21 year old and was even named Toronto’s Opening Day starter in ’15. Moving from the American League to the National League should help his numbers alone. Not to mention, the Ray Searage effect. His peripherals are not that bad either for his career: 2.8 BB/9, 8.3 K/9.Hutch is a project, but he has swing-and-miss stuff, a three-pitch arsenal and is a lot for Uncle Ray to work with here. If the Pirates can mold him to get more ground balls, keep his pitch count low and throw more sinkers to keep the ball down in the zone, then he could be the next reclamation project the Pirates turn around.

Why he shouldn’t: There’s always the possibility that he won’t be turn around and you can’t ignore last season where he posted a 5.69 FIP. He was ripped hard at the ML level with a 10.5 H/9 in just 24 innings of work after spending most of the season in the minors. There’s also an injury history with Tommy John surgery back in 2013. His career 38.6 GB% would be one of the lowest among Pirates starters and that’s an area he would most likely need to improve on if he plans on making this rotation.

Steven Brault was one of the six pitchers to make their ML debut in a start for the Pirates in 2016. The Pirates acquired Brault during the 2015 offseason in the Travis Snider deal with the Orioles. Brault made eight appearances (seven starts) for the Bucs last season to the tune of a 4.86 ERA in 33.1 innings.

Why he should be in rotation: Brault already has ML experience that the Pirates could plug him in at No. 5 starter in the rotation. His minor league numbers have been terrific, posting a career 2.91 ERA and barely surrendering any home runs (just 17 in 439.2 innings). Brault also has an optimistic projection going for him. ZiPS projects Brault for a 4.18 ERA and a 4.26 FIP in 2017 along with a low walk rate of 7.4 BB% and a 1.4 zWAR, which ranks fifth among all Pirates pitchers. Brault would also give the Pirates rotation the only lefty should they covet having a southpaw among the starters.

Why he shouldn’t: Brault was hit hard in his brief time in the Majors last year (12.2 H/9). His walks were up and strikeouts down. Brault also managed under five innings per start, reaching six innings only once in seven starts. That was a key to the problems the Pirates had last year with their starters and the injuries/poor performances they were seeing. No one pitched more than 130 innings total on season and no one was going deep into games and added more pressure on the taxed bullpen. The Pirates will want starters that can go six and seven innings every start, and Brault couldn’t even make at least five-inning starts consistently.

Feel free to comment below on who you think will make the rotation or tweet to us @northshorenine.

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