Decisions, Decisions Part II - Several Pirates' Pitchers with Questions in 2020

The Pirates' pitching staff was a huge struggle in 2019 for a slew of reasons. Those struggles have resulted in staff-wide questions that will need answered this off-season.

Last week we discussed some of the Pirates position players who were on the edge, personnel that the team will be forced to make decisions on as they enter 2020. The pitching staff is no less murky and, as we round out the talent base that already resides in Pittsburgh, let’s touch on some of those names.

One of the most frustrating things that all the injuries caused last season was the nonstop conga line of inferior or under-prepared pitchers the Pirates were forced to keep trotting to the mound. Its easy to dismiss many of those players as lost causes and pay them no mind, but all the back and forth that wore a beaten path to Indianapolis helped create many of the issues. In fact, it has created issues that will force some decisions this season as the Pirates cavalierly burned options for players that have more upside than we were given opportunity to see.

Pitching is a bit different to look at than position players and teams routinely count on 4 or 5 players as depth starters or relief fill ins. As I see the current roster, everyone I list may be fighting for 1 or 2 spots, and the Pirates have yet to make any moves to affect the mix.

Without further ado, lets dive in with an open mind and an understanding that even one trick ponies can have a valuable place in a bullpen mix. 

JT Brubaker
Contract Status: No Service Clock
Options: Yes
Position: SP

 JT was drafted in the 6 round out of Akron in the 2015 draft and has moved up the ranks steadily. His 2019 campaign was plagued by injury, which was a real shame due to the fact the MLB squad was nicked up so badly. It’s hard to imagine the 2018 minor league pitcher of the year wouldn’t be an option. In fact, JT being called up to Pittsburgh last season was almost planned. He has strikeout stuff and a solid grasp on the control of at least three pitches. At 26, and the top Starting pitcher in the Pirates’ minor league system there is a strong chance he will contribute in 2020.

Prediction: JT is a strong contender to spot start, but some things have to go his way. The Pirates have made some recent moves such as handing Dario Agrazal a DFA rather than protecting him on the 40-man roster. The path is clear for JT and if he can establish himself and stay healthy for Indianapolis, I see him being top of the list if a starter goes down. Bottom line, he will start in AAA.

Nick Burdi
Contract Status: Rookie Status, ARB Eligible 2021, FA 2024
Options: Yes
Position: RP 

Nick’s numbers don’t reflect what he showed early in 2019. He had two bad outings out of eleven and in the other nine showed a power fastball and slider. Posting 17 strikeouts in 8.2 innings of work before dramatically exiting an outing suffering season ending nerve damage in his throwing arm. He is a promising reliever and has back of the bullpen stuff. He absolutely showed enough to be protected on the 40-man and could be counted on if the numbers work out.

Prediction: Nick is on the fence in the truest sense of the phrase. He has MLB stuff and has already shown it; the Pirates need as many solid options as they can get in the pen, but they may prefer to see him show it at AAA to start the season if for no other reason than the significance and abnormality of his injury in 2019. I’d lean toward Burdi making the club out of Spring, the stuff is just too real to let the 26-year old head back to Indy.

Geoff Hartlieb
Contract Status: ARB Eligible 2022, FA 2025
Options: Yes
Position: RP

OK, I watched him pitch too so bear with me here. Geoff has a lot of upside. I’ll wait while you all yell at whatever device you’re reading this on. There were a couple of factors in Hartlieb’s struggles last season. First, he did not have good control of his fastball, which is more than fast enough to get MLB hitters out - topping out at 97-98 MPH. He also has a wicked slider that only drops a couple MPH. If the Pirates can develop him, he will be a very interesting option. Another problem was the Pirates seeming unwillingness to let him pitch to his strengths, almost totally avoiding the slider in favor of two seam fastballs (sound familiar) that were just getting pummeled by big league hitters.

Prediction: I don’t think Geoff makes the club, but don’t be so quick to cringe if he gets an early call up. This is a talented pitcher and I expect what he went through last season and, the new direction the management team will implement to work together and create a solid option.

Clay Holmes
Contract Status: ARB Eligible 2022, FA 2025
Options: Yes
Position: RP

Clay is a big boy, and that size comes with advantages and disadvantages. The size gives him leverage to really get that downward plane on his fastball and a wicked break on his curveball, but it also creates more moving parts, more room for mechanical failure in technique. Look for the new pitching coach to work with Holmes a whole lot in Spring because despite what we’ve seen on the mound at PNC, Clay has some of the very best stuff in the system. I’m not going to repeat in each article that pitch-to-contact was a problem, but perhaps nobody suffered more from this delusion than Holmes. That’s not his game, and it never was at any level. Still he learned what the last regime wanted from him and executed. By the end of the 2019 season Holmes had one of the better ground ball rates in the majors and was steady in his last 6 outings. Walks were his biggest issue as his two-seam fastball got tagged he got shy with it and missed low repeatedly. This was the very adjustment he made in the last stretch of games, really starting to attack the bottom of the zone.

Prediction: Holmes has a good chance to make the club. His stuff is real and comparisons to the dearly departed Tyler Glasnow get tossed around in the clubhouse often. Harnessing his stuff and not stifling his strengths could make Clay the most pleasant surprise of 2020.

Sam Howard
Contract Status: Rookie Status, ARB Eligible 2022, FA 2025
Options: Yes
Position: RP

Wildcard here. Sam is intriguing for a couple reasons, one being his strikeout to walk ratio is really solid. The other being simple, he throws left handed. The Pirates have zero left handed pitching outside Steven Brault in the system, anywhere near contributing. While the left-handed specialist is on its way out, there is still need for splits and the matchup issues they create. 

Prediction: Howard has a shot to make this club more for being born left-handed than any other factor. If the club leaves themselves in position where he is THE option for keeping a lefty, we should probably have some questions for this new regime. I don’t say this by way of discounting the man’s future or ability, but he is a virtual unknown and I’d like to see the club address it more firmly.

Dovydas Neverauskas
Contract Status: Rookie Status, ARB Eligible 2022, FA 2025
Options: Yes
Position: RP

There hasn’t been much positive to say about the Lithuanian Nightmare, at least not in the Pirates bullpen. He is a different pitcher in AAA and that typically means a couple things, one his stuff is Quad A level, or the stage is too big. Whatever the Pirates see in him I can’t imagine he gets many more chances to get his footing, so the young man needs to make it count if and when he gets another.

Prediction: AAA. And I’d be quite happy if he stayed there all season. If the Pirates think he is a wild horse that needs tamed, ok, do it then, at least that would explain giving him a spot on the 40-man. One thing that can’t continue for Dovydas is to constantly be shuttled back and forth from Indy to Pittsburgh. Time to place him, teach him, then see if it took. This needs to be a final decision year, not because of options, because enough is enough.

Other names will emerge as we enter spring training, and the Pirates will make some moves. Those moves will either open or close a door on some of these fringe performers. If the idea is to have a crop of players in the minors who could jump up and contribute to the efforts of your pitching staff all season, I suggest what is here isn’t good enough. The Pirates can and should address the issue of left-handed pitching, its criminal to have as few as they do in Pittsburgh with a short porch in PNC's right field. 

Many if not all of these pitchers could play a role due to injury, performance or even double header roster considerations. The Pirates need to quickly address the philosophy they have employed for developing pitchers and they may not have the talent in-house to make a go of it The market is already moving faster this off-season than last and while the Pirates still have some hires to make they shouldn’t let that stop them from addressing the overall talent.

Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007

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