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Pirates’ minor league recap: Indianapolis Part 2

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the AAA pitchers. This is a really mixed bag, sort of the pitcher version of Utility Land. There are a lot of guys who seem to have the ability to pitch in the majors, but it’s hard to figure out what role they can handle.

Again, I’m not including guys who spent the bulk of their seasons in the majors. I’m also not including guys who are free agents now, like Casey Sadler and A.J. Schugel.

For clarity, pitchers on the 40-man roster are indicated by *.

THE GOOD

J.T. Brubaker, RHP: Brubaker has always had good stuff, but never got good results until this year. He throws in the mid-90s and gets higher, and also has a change. This year he added a cutter, which seemed to make a difference. He dominated through six starts at Altoona, then moved up. He scuffled a little at first in AAA, but finished very strongly. He had a 1.01 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in August. I think Brubaker, who’s eligible for Rule 5, has a better chance than Tyler Eppler of being added to the 40-man roster.

Tanner Anderson, RHP*: The Pirates moved Anderson and his Bronson Arroyo leg kick to the bullpen full-time this year. His stuff seemed to play up a bit, with his fastball averaging 93-94 mph. He largely dropped his change and throws a lot of sliders. He throws strikes and doesn’t miss many bats. He got good results in AAA, with a 2.64 ERA that wasn’t BABIP-dependent. The Pirates called him up in July and he got bombed in a blowout loss to the Dodgers. He came back up in September and pitched well in four outings, allowing two earned runs in 8.1 IP. I’m guessing that, unlike Alex McRae, who wasn’t called up, the Pirates see a long-term role for Anderson. It’d probably be in middle relief given the lack of swing-and-miss.

THE BAD

Alex McRae, RHP*: It’s hard to know what to say about McRae because I don’t get the Pirates’ interest in him. He was pitching poorly in AAA when the Pirates called him up (unlike Anderson), he pitched poorly in two games for the Pirates, and he pitched poorly when he went back down. In AAA, he had a 4.77 ERA, 4.17 xFIP and 1.57 WHIP. I’m pretty sure those numbers aren’t good, or even so-so. I have to assume from the fact that he wasn’t called up that he won’t remain on the roster much longer.

Montana DuRapau, RHP: You’d hate to see this name wasted, but DuRapau had a lost season. He started with a 50-game suspension for a second positive test for a drug of abuse, which also cost him a non-roster invitation to major league spring training. Once he returned to AAA, he had uncharacteristic control and gopher ball problems, leading to a 6.33 ERA. His xFIP was 3.85, so he probably wasn’t that bad, but it was still a step backward. Despite the fact that he’s always had high K rates (including this year), DuRapau doesn’t have great stuff and so can’t afford self-inflicted wounds like this year.

Jesus Liranzo, RHP*: The Pirates claimed Liranzo off waivers from the Dodgers at the start of this season. He’s a live-armed reliever who throws in the mid-90s, misses bats, and can’t throw strikes. He’s also had a lot of health problems that led to him having limited experience prior to 2017, even though he first signed back in 2012. The Pirates started him off at Altoona and he dominated there through nine games, then moved up. In AAA he couldn’t throw strikes, walking 6.2 per nine innings. He had a 1.38 WHIP, which doesn’t seem so bad, but he benefited from an unsustainable .220 BABIP. He didn’t get a September callup and still has an option left.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Clay Holmes, RHP*: Holmes may be the most frustrating pitcher in the organization. He has good stuff, including a 94-mph fastball, and he’s had extraordinarily high groundball rates throughout his career, including his time in the majors. He’s tended to tinker with his repertoire a lot, but since he stopped throwing mostly sinkers and started going more with a cutter and a curve, he’s been missing plenty of bats. That includes a K/9 of 9.4 in AAA this year. And he pitched well most of the time in AAA this year. But he can’t. throw. strikes. His control problems in the minors this year were just sporadic, but they were consistent in the majors, which explains the 6.84 ERA and 2.01 WHIP. Late in the season, the Pirates moved Holmes to relief. I don’t know whether that reflected their long-term thinking or a short-term judgment that he was more likely to end up pitching in relief if he got called up this year. The move did not help his control problems, although he pitched fewer than 20 innings out of the bullpen between the majors and minors. I can’t see the Pirates giving up on Holmes any time soon, especially since he has an option left, but he can’t pitch in the majors if he walks a batter an inning.

Tyler Eppler, RHP: The Pirates’ interest in Eppler is obvious: he’s 6’6”, sits in the mid-90s and throws strikes. The problem has always been that he lacks an out pitch, with the result that he’s always had trouble with long hits. Opponents slugged .514 against him in AAA in 2017. His 2018 season was a repeat of 2017, except the overall results were better. In both seasons, he got off to a great start and then tailed off. He didn’t get hit nearly as hard this year, but his opponents’ slugging average of .415 was still 26 points above the league average. He improved his K rate, but it was still only 6.9 per nine innings. He’s eligible for Rule 5 for the second time.

Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP*: Another very frustrating pitcher, Neverauskas throws in the upper-90s but doesn’t get results at the major league level. During his time in the majors last year, he had a startling inability to get swings and misses. This year, he cut down sharply on his fastball usage. (Brooks characterizes his secondary pitches as a cutter and curve. My understanding is that he throws two different sliders.) Maybe as a result, he started missing a ton more bats (11.3 K/9 in AAA, 9.0 in MLB) but his control suffered. Oddly, his BB rate was nearly double in AAA what it was in the majors (5.8 per nine to 3.3), but he got hit hard in his time with the Pirates. That included a gopher ball every three innings. Despite the walks, he had a 2.53 ERA (but a 3.68 xFIP) in AAA. In the majors, he got scored upon in 14 of his 24 outings. It was a little surprising that the Pirates called him up in September, and may or may not indicate that they aren’t ready to cut bait on him. He’ll have to keep searching for a style of pitching that works.

Brandon Waddell, LHP: Waddell struggled with walks and arm trouble for two years at Altoona, then got off to a great start there this year.* The Pirates moved him up after nine games and he had more trouble in AAA. As a finesse lefty, he’s always going to have the Jeff Locke issue: he has to work around the edges of the strike zone and hitters may not chase. He walked four per nine innings and struck out only 6.6, and opponents batted .285 against him. He finished with an ERA of 4.19 and xFIP of 4.47. Waddell is eligible for Rule 5.

*Waddell benefited from a .243 BABIP at Altoona, which is why his ERA was 2.68 but his xFIP was 4.01. The more I look at the Pirates’ upper level pitchers, the more I wonder just how good the Altoona infield was.