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Bucco breakfast: Do the Pirates have enough starting pitching depth?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Well, no.

The Pirates were in the mildly unusual position of having their 2019 rotation locked down before the 2018 season ended. Barring trade or injury, it’ll be Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Ivan Nova. When you ask yourself, though, what happens if, say, Musgrove (who just had abdominal surgery) isn’t able to open the season again, it gets awfully shaky.

The Pirates have a bunch of prospects who looked like they could be rotation pieces, but who just haven’t transitioned well to the majors. Right now, the sixth starter would probably be Nick Kingham. He looked fine in some ways this year, but his gopher ball problems were frightening. He gave up over two longballs every nine innings. He also got bombed in his late-season starts in AAA and his velocity was down a bit from what it was prior to his Tommy John surgery. There are obviously reasons to be concerned.

Beyond that, there seem to be just question marks. The Pirates appear to have concluded that Steven Brault is a reliever and he didn’t inspire much confidence even in that role this year. The other spot starter in 2018, Clay Holmes, so far looks like Tyler Glasnow without the dominant stuff. He moved to the bullpen late in the season, which may or may not be where the Pirates see him in the future.

What’s left are pitchers who are strictly prospects. The one who certainly appears to have a major league future is Mitch Keller, but he doesn’t look like an option early in the season. And, no, it’s not due to the most overblown meme on the internet, i.e., super two. It’s because he flat didn’t pitch well in AAA. The Pirates would be jeopardizing their own long-term interests if they failed to let him figure out that level first.

Past Keller, arguably the most promising option is J.T. Brubaker. He finally started getting results in line with his stuff this year, and improved a lot after some early struggles in AAA. We’ll know a little more about him when we see whether the Pirates add him to the roster this fall, as he’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

The remaining upper-level, non-roster starters just don’t look all that good yet and, at best, need a good deal more time. Tyler Eppler had just an OK season in his second shot at AAA; opposing hitters putting up a slash line against him that was a little higher than league average, which isn’t what you’d want to see from a future major league rotation piece. Brandon Waddell is another finesse lefty, a demographic that hasn’t exactly had a stellar record with the Pirates. He mostly struggled in AAA. After them would be guys like Cam Vieaux and Dario Agrazal, both of whom might not even be ready for AAA. And, finally, there’s Luis Escobar, who’s a long way off at best. He struggled in AA late in the year and also got himself suspended for violating team rules. Escobar is another pitcher with very good stuff but subpar command who might be a reliever long-term.

The Pirates’ rotation situation looks mighty precarious to me. A couple of injuries early could leave them in a meltdown if the current options are the only alternatives. It’s hard to see what the solution is, though, because the rotation is set. Even if they suddenly decide to be a player in the free agent market, they’re obviously not going to sign a starter to serve as AAA depth. Maybe the answer is to bring in a couple guys looking to turn their careers around and willing to open in AAA. If you have any creative suggestions, feel free to share. Maybe somebody on Federal Street will be reading.

Daily Links

  • It’s about a dozen games into the Arizona Fall League schedule. The Pirates have seven players with the Surprise Saguaros: SS Cole Tucker, 1B Will Craig, OF Bryan Reynolds, LHP Blake Weiman, and RHPs Dario Agrazal, Geoff Hartlieb and Matt Eckelman. You can find their stats here. In the limited action they’ve had, Tucker is doing well, Craig okay and Reynolds not well. Weiman is pitching well, Hartlieb is lighting up the radar guns but not getting good results, Eckelman is struggling and Agrazal had one weak start.
  • In sad news, Dave Littlefield is no longer a candidate for the Mets’ GM job. It’d be fascinating to know how he got so far to begin with; you could compile a list of 10,000 better GM candidates by hanging around a street corner in Sri Lanka. But we can still hope that he’ll somehow resurface in St. Louis.
  • Maybe I’ll do a daily “dysfunctional ballclubs” link, just for the angry folks who think the Pirates are the worst-run baseball team ever. The Orioles now have themselves in a bizarre situation, having lost out on the guys with the Victor Mesa permutations for names. The O’s have $6.5M in international bonus money to spend and nobody to spend it on. It’s not just the Mesas who are gone; the top international prospects for this signing period have pretty much all signed.