The Pirates entered spring training with only a few position battles. Third base, shortstop, and the fifth spot in the rotation were all, at the very least, perceived to be up for grabs.
Third base already seems like Colin Moran’s spot. Jung Ho Kang has performed well so far in spring, but I really don’t see Moran losing the starting role to Kang that quickly. Regardless, Kang should get plenty of starts this year and I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets the majority of the time after the All-Star break. Just not now.
Shortstop is probably the most interesting. Kevin Newman and Erik Gonzalez are projected to have very similar seasons. Depth Charts has Newman projected to have a .663 OPS and projects Erik Gonzalez to have a .659 OPS. Based on reports, Gonzalez has the upper hand when it comes to fielding. Neither are overly inspiring, which is what makes the competition so compelling. The Pirates passed on an unreasonable option in Manny Machado, but also passed on legitimate options such as Jose Iglesias (who signed a minor league deal) and Freddy Galvis (1 year deal for $5 million, with a team option for $5.5 million and a $1 million buyout). The Pirates acquired Gonzalez early on and stayed the course through the entire offseason. It’s interesting to think if they would have traded for Gonzalez in the first place if they knew they could get Galvis or Iglesias at such reasonable prices, but there is no going back now. It’s Newman or Gonzalez.
While I think shortstop is the more intriguing competition, the fifth spot in the rotation causes the most havoc. The three-way battle consists of Steven Brault, Nick Kingham, and Jordan Lyles. Kingham showed flashes last year, Brault tweaked some things in the offseason to help improve his command, and Lyles is Searage’s shiny new toy.
So far, Brault hasn’t shown a whole lot. While I’m not completely comfortable with Kingham or Lyles as the fifth starter and would prefer Keuchel or Gio Gonzalez, that doesn’t seem likely. Kingham and Lyles seem to be promising enough to get the job done, though.
So with Brault missing on a rotation spot, that potentially leaves the Pirates with 3 left-handed pitchers in the bullpen. Flexibility with left-handed pitchers isn’t something that Pirates have had for quite a while. But the problem is Brault might be a roster spot casualty, not just a loser in the battle for the rotation.
RosterResource.com has the Pirates projected to go with a 4 man bench and an 8 man bullpen. With Diaz looking more and more likely to start the season on the IL (yes, the IL), it’s probably more likely the Pirates go with a 5 man bench and 7 man bullpen.
The above is a screenshot of what RosterResource.com thinks the Pirates bullpen will be. There are 8 pitchers there, so we need to cut one. Vazquez, Kela, Rodriguez, and Crick are obviously not going anywhere. Liriano will get a shot, Burdi is an intriguing Rule 5 pick and needs to be on the roster to be kept, and Lyles/Kingham are very likely to stay. One of them could be traded, but that would go against Huntington’s infatuation with starting pitching depth.
Which leaves Steven Brault. He has an option, and with Kingham, Lyles, or even Liriano in the pen, the long reliever or emergency SP role is already occupied. Because of the flexibility that the option provides, there is a very good chance that Brault opens the season in AAA. Kingham or Lyles will win the fifth spot, and the other will get a spot in the bullpen.
Losing Brault in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal. Over 159.2 big league innings, he has accrued 0.0 WAR. He is replaceable.
The problem with losing Brault, though, is losing a left-handed arm. Pittsburgh Pirate left-handed pitchers have been few and far between over the last couple of years, and it’s shown. From 2017-2018, the Pirates ranked 12th in wOBA against vs RHH (.308) and 24th against LHH (.333). The lack of left-handed options has undoubtedly hurt the Pirates against left-handed heavy teams, and the NL Central is full of them this year. Each team, except for the Cardinals, should be capable of putting 5 LHH into the lineup each night.
Without any lefty counter waiting in the bullpen, you might see teams regularly running 6, 7, or even 8 left-handed hitters against the Pirates. With Vazquez in the closer role, that leaves Liriano as the lone ‘versatile’ lefty in the bullpen. When Liriano was first signed, there was a lot of chatter around if he could, or should, be used in an opener role. With no other lefties in the bullpen, I think you can kiss that opportunity goodbye.
Huntington has, for years now, built his offense around ‘versatile’ guys that can play multiple positions. His stubbornness turned Frazier into a viable outfielder and made John Jaso into one of the most frustrating players of the decade. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it doesn’t work that way with pitching. Lefties have an inherent advantage against same-handed hitters, and forgoing that advantage puts the Pirates at a disadvantage. Passing on guys like Xavier Cedeno, Oliver Perez, and Jake Diekman this offseason has put the Pirates pitchers in a tough spot. They will get attacked with left-handed lineups regularly, and their numbers will suffer because of it.
From 2017-2018, the Pirates faced the 10th highest amount of left-handed hitters. They will very likely be in the top third of the league once again, especially with an all-righty rotation. When and if the Pirates do option Brault to AAA, just keep in mind what this does to the roster as a whole. Using Liriano as an opener is now out of the question as the Pirates will need to rely heavily on Liriano. There are only 2 left-handed pitchers in AAA right now (Brandon Waddell, Tyler Lyons), and 3 if you include Brault. If anything were to happen to Liriano or Vazquez, the Pirates would have a real crisis on their southpawless hands.