Here we are, less than two weeks into spring. The hopefulness that injury was simply insurmountable last season and health would be the difference this year is already something that can’t be seen. Clay Holmes went down with a broken foot, 4 to 6 weeks. Steven Brault has been shut down for two weeks with inflammation in his shoulder, at this stage of spring, bringing him back up even if that two weeks is enough to heal will surely force him to miss the beginning of the season. Chris Archer had a strained neck, causing him to miss his first start. By all accounts his throwing session went well but his spring has at least gotten off to a delayed beginning.
None of this is the Pirates' fault, you can only control the controllable after all. You can however mitigate damage by providing depth. Last season the Pirates suffered an inordinate amount of injuries for sure, and no team would have seamlessly tiptoed through that minefield without missing a beat. Starting the season in 2019, the Pirates felt they had a chance to have one of the best rotations in the NL Central, if not the league. Chris Archer, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and either Steven Brault, Nick Kingham or Jordan Lyles as the fifth starter. On top of those seven options they also had Mitch Keller and potentially JT Brubaker knocking on the door in AAA. Nine pitchers sounds like a world of depth, but the general consensus is that the Bucs were ill prepared to deal with the rash of injuries and, looking back, they certainly did not have enough. I didn’t even mention the acquisition of Chris Stratton.
We all know what happened, Jameson Taillon went on the IL and eventually succumbed to elbow surgery. Chris Archer had his stints on the IL but mostly never got traction in the first place. Nick Kingham bombed out and he was given ample opportunities. Trevor Williams started well, went on the IL and came back a different pitcher. Joe stayed relatively healthy and emerged as the workhorse and default top of the rotation pitcher. Jordan Lyles was on the IL too, and of course was moved at the deadline for a potential solution this season, more on that in a minute. Steven Brault became the stopper, somehow mystifying opposing lineups with his one pitch magic show to have a very respectable season.
Here we are, 2020, surely, they’ve learned from 2019 and provided themselves more options to get through should injury strike again. Penciled in we have Joe, Archer, Williams, Keller, Brault, toss in for depth, Derek Holland, JT Brubaker is back but this time healthy, Stratton is still here and hopefully healthy and the wildcard Chad Kuhl who just threw his first 20 competitive pitches in 17 months.
New year, new players in the mix, still nine options for the starting rotation. Here’s the thing though, its not the quantity, it’s the quality that’s at issue. Any of those nine pitchers, both sets, the 2019 or the 2020 iterations could win on any given night, but who could step in and become part of that rotation and admirably fill a slot for a five-week span? Derek Holland is a capable MLB pitcher who has handled the role in the past, you can argue he isn’t good enough or his recent work is cause for concern and you could very well be right, but the fact is he’s done it and that means something. Especially when trying to build depth.
Last season the Pirates hid two pieces of their depth options in the bullpen, Brault and Kingham, when they were called upon neither were stretched beyond much more than 40 pitches, causing almost more issues than they solved. On top of that they alternated the two, trying to have either gain a foothold while simultaneously hindering either from doing that very thing. After deciding Kingham was not going to contribute, Brault was finally given the opportunity to fill the role, stretch out and to his credit took full advantage.
This season, nobody is under any illusion that the rotation is a strength, in-fact its hard to argue it’s a passible MLB rotation. The hope is simply that it doesn’t come up, that everyone stays relatively healthy and the team requires little more than spot starts. A notion that has already, at this early stage been proven an improbability.
What’s best for business, and best for depth is to have players like Brubaker settle in at AAA and be ready for a call up, not unlike Mitch Keller last season. Many people forget that JT was actually ahead of Keller in line to be called up before he suffered his very own injury. Players like Cody Ponce, and Brubaker need to provide the depth this club needs and it will be tested early. When constructing a roster, the bullpen can’t be used as a catch all for pitchers out of options alone. Signing more borderline pitchers for depth, those with options to augment what you have at AAA can turn your roster into something that can survive an all-out MASH unit like we saw last year.
When the roster is set as the Pirates break camp and head North, the importance of reinforcements will make itself known. Have the Bucs done enough to ensure they have arms to answer the bell? Experience tells me no, but time and a long season will hold the answer.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007