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Holmes battling for bullpen spot

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

All baseball fans come at the game differently, from their level of involvement to how they go about dissecting – or viewing — a season. As a fan, I like to look at a baseball year as a series of segments. If you go by the calendar year, January is the time to start getting excited. The holidays are over, and in a little over a month, the boys will be heading to warmer climes. Then comes spring training, when everyone’s spirits are high – or at least those who haven’t been beaten into submission and claim they’ll never again pull for their hometown team for reasons A, B or C. The regular season comes next, with all its ebbs and flows and highs and lows, followed by the postseason reviews – the what-went-wrong or what-went-right, depending on where you finished in the standings and what the won-loss record was. That period can take you through at least October, if not longer. Which leaves you with pretty much only a month to kill before the cycle starts again.

And within each of those segments are mini-segments. So, spring training can be broken into smaller pieces, starting with the rush of pitchers and catchers reporting and the first week or two of drills, then to the first few weeks of Grapefruit or Cactus League games, and then the final week or two when any roster questions must be answered. The thing I enjoy most about the period we now find ourselves in is, as a fan, I’m looking for any optimistic thread I can follow – even if it’s based on one or two games. It’s completely ridiculous, I realize, but I can’t help myself.

Which brings me to the focus of today’s piece: one Clay Holmes. All it took was one solid outing in the very first Grapefruit League game for me to jump on the Holmes’ bandwagon. Trust me, it was not hard to find a seat.

But I go back a way with Holmes, as he first appeared on my radar shortly after he was drafted by the Pirates in the ninth round of the 2011 draft – the same year the club took Gerrit Cole No. 1, Josh Bell No. 2 and Tyler Glasnow in the fifth round. The Pirates also selected Trea Turner that year in the 20th round out of high school, but he opted not to sign and went on to bigger and better things elsewhere after being chosen in the first round three years later by the San Diego Padres.

Holmes, the tall right-hander out of Alabama who turns 27 at the end of March, passed on an opportunity to play at Auburn and signed with the Pirates for what was reported to be $1.2 million – supposedly the largest bonus ever given to a player chosen that late in the draft. He debuted the following year in the New York-Penn League, where he put together a 2.28 ERA in 59 1/3 innings, then followed that in 2013 with a 4.08 ERA in 119 innings as a 20-year-old in the South Atlantic League.

But Holmes’ climb through the Pirates’ minor league system was derailed by Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in March 2014, and after missing that entire season, he pitched in just nine games, for a total of 36 1/3 innings, in 2015. He came back with a solid season at Altoona in 2016, going 10-9 with a 4.22 ERA, which earned him a spot in the Indianapolis Indians rotation in 2017, where he went 10-5 with a 3.36 ERA.

The following year, Holmes posted similar numbers in 16 starts at Indy, going 8-3 with a 3.40 ERA in 95 innings. He spent some time in Pittsburgh that year, appearing in 11 games, but scuffled to a 6.84 ERA, and he followed that up with a rough 2019 campaign split between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. He was probably best known for getting a controversial spot start in a game in mid-August of 2018 with the Pirates still involved in the chase for the second wild card. Holmes, who had just four previous big league appearances, didn’t make it out of the third inning, giving up seven earned runs on eight hits and four walks in a 13-10 loss to the Giants.

Since then, Holmes has had his problems. But for some reason, I keep thinking this will be the year things fall into place. He’s entering his prime, physically, and although his numbers were not good last year, he did get a chance to pitch, appearing in 35 games. He finished 1-2 with a 5.58 ERA, yielding 45 hits and 36 walks in 50 innings. But he pitched more effectively down the stretch; in his final 11 appearances, with the club in a veritable death spiral, Holmes worked 17 innings and posted an ERA of 3.18, giving up 11 hits while striking out 20. But his inability to consistently throw strikes continued to be a concern as he walked 15 batters in those 17 innings.

The 2019 season wasn’t a totally lost cause, though. His curve showed potential, as opposing batters hit just .217 off that pitch, which he threw nearly one out of every four offerings. The sinker was his bread-and-butter, throwing it 53 percent of the time, and hitters compiled a .250 average. His luck with the four-seamer wasn’t nearly as good; hitters teed off to a .313 average.

That brings us to today, where Holmes is out of options and fighting to earn a spot in the bullpen. His initial outing Saturday was something to build on, as he retired the side in order in the Grapefruit League opener against the Twins, needing just seven pitches – six of which were strikes.

Perhaps with new pitching coach Oscar Marin and the club’s added emphasis on analytics, Holmes – a cerebral type who was his high school valedictorian — will take a major step forward this season and fill a key bullpen role. At the very least, the club needs to give him plenty of work in the next month to see if his arrow is pointing up. I’d like to see the club stash him in the bullpen as a long man; given the Pirates’ shaky starting rotation, he could be plenty busy and get plenty more opportunities to hone his craft.