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Pirates' minor league rotations: Indianapolis

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Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson and, eventually, Jameson Taillon will highlight the Pirates' AAA rotation.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first of a four-part series running down the likely rotations for the Pirates’ full-season affiliates in 2015. For the most part, these rotations can’t be anticipated with any certainty. The Pirates generally will accumulate what seems like an excess of arms, but it never turns out that way due to injuries and other factors. Sometimes pitchers will simply disappear into extended spring training, whether because of an injury, because they’re working on something, or because there just isn’t space at the appropriate level. At the lower levels – pretty much from AA on down, but especially with the two class A affiliates – assignments are unpredictable because they’re influenced by the team’s developmental plan for a particular pitcher and on things the coaches are seeing that don’t show up in numbers. An Adrian Sampson, for instance, may get torched in high A but move up anyway because his struggles resulted from planned overuse of a changeup. Of course, any potential starter could also be used in relief.

Anyway, let’s start off with AAA Indianapolis.

Likely Starters

Jameson Taillon will be the headliner in the Indians’ rotation once he’s ready to go, but that won’t be the case at the start of the season. Instead, the most prominent starter will be . . .

Nick Kingham, who’s the most advanced of the team’s top pitching prospects who's not coming off Tommy John surgery. His performance in half a season in AAA last year was uneven, so don’t look for him in the majors until mid-season or later.

Adrian Sampson is the other top prospect who’ll open the season in the rotation. He pitched only briefly in AAA late last year, with variable results, so he’s likely to spend most or all of the season in AAA.

Barring injuries on the major league team, Brandon Cumpton will return as a depth option in AAA, although he could move to the bullpen if the Pirates see better opportunities for him to help them in relief. The team currently has a lot of relievers competing for big league jobs, but several are out of options. If the Pirates aren’t able to retain enough of the relievers who fail to make the roster, either by sneaking them through waivers or by sending down the ones who do have options (Jared Hughes and John Holdzkom), Cumpton could quickly become important as bullpen depth.

Casey Sadler is in the same position as Cumpton, but probably ranks behind Cumpton on the depth chart.

The fifth starter who’s probably close to a lock for the AAA rotation is major league veteran Clayton Richard. He’s still working his way back from multiple shoulder surgeries, but there’s probably an outside chance he could make the major league rotation.  It’s also possible he may have some sort of opt-out clause in his contract, so it's not guaranteed that he'll be with Indianapolis.  Still, considering that he only pitched about 16 shaky innings in rehab outings in the minors in 2014, it’s hard to see any scenario other than him going to AAA and showing he’s bounced back.

Others

It seems obvious which five starters should make up the Indianapolis rotation to open the season, but for one reason or another it never seems to work out that way.  There are several other pitchers, though, who could join the rotation at some point.

A.J. Morris is a former prospect who made great strides last year in AA, much like Kris Johnson did a couple years ago. He spent some time in AAA last year and would be a good candidate for the Indy rotation if a spot is open.  Morris missed much of the second half of the 2014 minor league season due to a forearm strain, but hopefully he'll be healthy at the start of 2015.

Charlie Leesman has been a solid starter in AAA for several years and has a little major league experience. He’d be a deep depth option in case of a string of injuries, but could pitch in relief if there’s no room. Leesman doesn't have much of a ceiling, but some of the other depth candidates are coming off severe struggles, so Leesman conceivably could rank behind Cumpton and Sadler on the depth chart.  That might make the Pirates eager to get him starts in AAA.

Chris Volstad is a former top prospect trying to rebound from a string of increasingly disastrous seasons. Considering that he had ERAs over 6.00 in half a season each in 2014 in Korea and in AAA, he might be a better candidate initially to pitch in relief or in AA.

Jeremy Bleich was a supplemental first round pick who got derailed by a torn labrum in 2010. Since he returned, he’s struggled to get his command back. Like Volstad, he seems a better candidate for the bullpen or AA, at least until some spaces start opening up in the AAA rotation.  He did pitch well as a starter in AA last year, but got hammered after being promoted to AAA.  Bleich seems closer to being useful at the major league level than Volstad, but both look more like projects than depth at this point.

Angel Sanchez made some noise as a Dodger prospect for a brief time, but hasn’t been impressive at AA and has been waived several times. The Pirates outrighted him last fall but, a little surprisingly, invited him to major league spring training. Despite that, he’ll almost certainly go back to AA.