Friday Focus: The Pirates' Power Arms, Now and Later
Gary Morgan Jr.
Possibly the most exciting events thus far in the spring schedule has been the electric stuff coming from the pitching staff. Some of those performers will make an impact this season, while others will provide the depth needed moving forward and a base for the future.
Is it perfect or even close to what the Pirates will need to ultimately compete for a championship? Well, no, the starting pitching is still short of the mark and by a wide margin as well, but the talent in the bullpen is nothing short of impressive.
The Pirates can only keep 13 pitchers and it's going to be a tough choice, one that I’m not going to try to help make today. No, today I’m going to just shine a light on some of this talent that is percolating under the surface and starting to pound at the door for opportunity.
Let’s begin with the starters, mostly because it will be far quicker to look at. Joe Musgrove jumped off the screen at me, he’s a five-pitch starter who really only used 3 predominately. Spring is the place for experimentation and seeing him use a pitch he has not employed didn’t surprise me. What did however was the shape and control of his newly crafted curve ball. It fell off the table. It hit corners. And most importantly it slowed down bats, because more than anything, Big Joe needed a pitch to do exactly that and the changeup didn’t have the action to do it safely. This alone could take him from a good starter to a VERY good pitcher.
The other starter who showed the promise I’m referring to in this piece has been Mitch Keller. Still listed as a prospect due to service time, it stands to reason Mitch straddles the line between now and later. His pitches look the same, but his control has been where he has broken ground. Hitting his spots with more regularity will allow his stuff to shine and while I don’t see him competing for the Cy Young, I also don’t see him having a hard time cementing a spot in the rotation.
I’m not writing off Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Chris Archer, Derek Holland, Chad Kuhl or anyone else who is in the running for filling a role, but none of them have taken a jump but how can you comment on those you haven’t seen, or seen improve. To be fair, Holland was about what I expected, on the top end he is a Jordan Lyles type on the low end, he’s a DFA. Brault looked exactly how he did in the second half of 2019, which is nice and useful, but defies explanation as to his effectiveness. Trevor Williams is desperately seeking to get back to his later 2018 form after an injury plagued and uncharacteristically wild 2019. He changed his delivery slightly and in his one outing, looked uncomfortable to say the least. Too little to form an opinion but too bad to overtly ignore.
Now onto the guys who probably won’t make the roster, because they are definitely in the later category, and those are JT Brubaker and Cody Ponce. Brubaker would likely have made his debut last season, arguably before Keller should he have been healthy and he looks to have his heat and breaking stuff working in the early going. Look for JT to get a shot this year. Cody Ponce is a jack of all trades player and well, Craig Toth said it better than I ever could. He was of course not an option for the Buccos last season as he was acquired from Milwaukee for Jordan Lyles at the deadline.
The bullpen is filled with fireballers, power pitchers with wicked, biting breaking balls. You know many of the names but rarely were they healthy together in 2019, if they were anywhere near MLB to begin with.
Nick Burdi who we all watched fall in a crumpled pile on the mound gripping his right arm last season is back and so is his fastball. Looking confident and firing triple digit heat Burdi looks to prove he belongs and can stay healthy. Because of his injury last season, he still has some of his Rule 5 status to work off but throwing like that makes his inclusion in the bullpen a must, rather than a Rule 5 arm twisting.
Michael Feliz looks to have retained the consistency he found last season auditioning for a role in the back end. Kyle Crick returns from the IL with his slider back to where it was prior to his struggles last year. The horizontal break escaped him, and he has seemingly recaptured it. It might be the nastiest slider in the majors, and if he continues to pair it with a well-placed fastball, he will be hard to hit.
Keone Kela, as I write this, is getting shelled by the Baltimore Orioles, but his track record and first outing give me pause to see this as much more of a blip. I still see the Pirates moving Kela this season but the list of those with potential to fill the closer role, despite my feelings on the “position” is deep.
Clay Holmes has a live arm and harnessing the control of his stuff has been a real challenge for him, but the talent is real. He will compete in that sweet spot where starters who didn’t make the rotation and relievers who didn’t make the back-end dwell. There is room there, but not much and his lack of options might make the difference. Before you give up on him, keep in mind that players in the Pirates' clubhouse have referred to him as Glasnow 2.0, we all remember what giving up on that young man looked like right?
Blake Cederlind has been possibly the hottest name this spring. The 100 MPH heat, the hair, the nickname (Baby Thor) it's hard to not get excited about what this young man can provide for this ball club moving forward. I don’t believe he will make the team out of camp, but his future is bright. So too is Nick Mears, the stuff plays, and he has a live fastball.
I refuse to mention Dovydas Neverauskas. I’m not sure how he could possibly get yet another shot, he may have burned more chances with the fans than Bob Nutting. The young man is a talent, and I’ve watched him pitch in AAA, he looks unhittable much of the time. Something just doesn’t click when he hits the major league mound and while I feel for him, I’ve seen enough.
That’s quite a few players, many will make the club, others won’t contribute this season in any measurable way, but the team is building something here. Identifying and deploying these players will develop a core worth building around and on. You may hate spring games and lord knows the Pirates aren’t having a fun time losing all of them so far, but for many of these important pieces, this is where the work starts to pay off. One day soon, we may look back on the spring of 2020 as the year we first noticed Blake Cederlind, years before some fans suggest we trade him to LA for a boatload of prospects.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007