Spring Training 2020: Any races among the arms?


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Trevor Williams. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

BRADENTON, Fla. -- On Monday, baseball fans will start their week hearing four of the most beautiful words for a cold, February morning:

Pitchers and catchers report.

But which pitchers are going to break camp with the Pirates this year?

Unfortunately, we are going to Bradenton mostly in the dark. As documented in the projected lineup piece, new manager Derek Shelton is going into spring with an open mind, wanting to get a live look at players before finalizing roles.

“We’re just watching guys on video, we’re just talking to people about them,” Shelton said during PiratesFest. “So that’s why spring training’s so important to us. And I think I said it [during the winter meetings] in San Diego, we’re different than most clubs because of the fact that we need to put eyes on our guys. We need to see people on the field and what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and how they react … Until we get into that, it’s probably a better March 15th, March 17th question than it is January 24th.”

Shelton has not even committed to who his closer will be yet. While he knows Keone Kela will be pitching in the backend of games, the bullpen jobs have not been assigned yet.

“There’s multiple people who can be in that mix, who are going to be pitching at the back end of the game in big innings for us," Shelton said. "I’ve expressed that to those guys and told them that, and then as we get to spring training and work further, we’ll be able to make that decision.”

So while nothing is guaranteed, I want to project what the opening day pitching staff will look like. I am limiting myself to players already on the roster or who have been invited to Pirates spring training, so I will not include any current free agents or predict a trade.

Without further ado, the opening day pitching staff (maybe):

SP 1 Chris Archer

Archer's first full year in Pittsburgh went about as poorly as it could have possibly gone. The two-seamer experiment failed and he abandoned the pitch in June. He was injured twice and ended up missing the final six weeks of the season with a right shoulder injury.

There are reasons to hope he'll bounce back in 2020, though. For one, he recorded a 3.78 FIP from the start he ditched the two-seamer on June 22 through the end of the season. In that time, he struck out 31.2 percent of his batters faced, which would have been a career-best if prorated over a full season. Toward the end of the year, he was getting batters to chase his slider out of the zone more than ever, showing the pitch still has life.

[caption id="attachment_957436" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Courtesy of Baseball Savant.[/caption]

Archer is still just two years removed from an All-Star campaign. He may not pitch well enough to justify the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh, but then again, how many players could? Archer is a trendy bounce-back pick, and that optimism looks justified.

SP 2 Joe Musgrove

Musgrove has been quite vocal this offseason about how the Pirates need more leadership in the clubhouse. It looks like he is going to take a step forward as that leader in 2020, and he may be taking a big step on the mound, too.

Musgrove has six pitches, and while his breaking and offspeed stuff are top-notch, he has relied on his fastball mostly while in Pittsburgh. That is a holdover from the previous coaching regime, so he could really take off under the right coaching ideology. He has a lot of the traits you want in a front-of-the-line starter but has not been able to put it all together yet. He will be one of Oscar Marin's first tests as the new pitching coach.

SP 3 Trevor Williams

Williams, like many of his teammates, regressed in 2019, going from one of 2018's breakout players to finishing 7-9 with a 5.38 ERA.

Williams relies on getting soft contact, and while his average exit velocity was still pretty good last year (87.2 mph), he was tagged for 27 home runs. To put that in perspective, he allowed 27 home runs as a starter in total from 2017-2018.

While Williams insisted health was not the reason for his decline, he was pitching quite well before going on the injured list in mid-May. Whether or not his right side injury impacted his performance in 2019, starting anew and healthy can only be a positive.

SP 4 Mitch Keller

If you look at only the old-school stats, Keller had a bad rookie season, going 1-5 with a 7.13 ERA. If you look at his season from a more analytical approach, he had a 3.19 FIP, showed his pitches have a lot of spin, made great strides with his slider and finished with an eye-opening 28.6% strikeout rate. The last Pirates starter with a strikeout rate higher than that was Oliver Perez in 2004 (min. 40 innings).

Keller's great peripherals are a very encouraging sign ahead of the 2020 season. He's going to know what to expect from the majors this time around, will get to throw to Jacob Stallings more and almost certainly will have his astronomical .475 BABIP drop somewhere between 150-200 points.

SP 5 Steven Brault

While the first four spots in the rotation look pretty secure, the fifth job is up for grabs. At the moment, the competition is between Brault, Chad Kuhl and Derek Holland, and I believe Brault is going to end up the winner.

Brault started and finished ugly last year, but from May to August, he was arguably the Pirates' best starter. A big reason for his solid half-season was he finally had some routine and structure in the big leagues. He got to game plan and recover more between outings, and it helped him repeat his mechanics better. He may not have Keller or Musgrove's raw stuff, but he is fearless with his fastball. Plus, it is always nice to have a lefty in the rotation.

Holland is on a minor-league deal, so he needs to make the roster or he can elect free agency. While he was a solid starter in 2018, he finished with an ERA and FIP just over six last year. It never hurts to bring in a veteran on a minor-league deal, but he is going to really have to show something during spring training to get this job.

This may be unexpected, but I do not have Kuhl on the opening day team. I still see him as a starter, and if he does not win the job out of Bradenton, the team will have to make a decision. Should they put him in the bullpen, something he has never done as a professional, and potentially tax his repaired UCL by stretching him back out to a starter if the opportunity presents itself, or let him get a couple reps in triple-A first and stay a starter. The latter seems like the better choice, both in the short-term and for his long-term health.

Long-relief Chris Stratton

There are a couple long-relief pitchers who need to make the Pirates roster or be cut, including Holland, Stratton and Clay Holmes. While all three have their merits, Stratton pitched the best out of the three in 2019 and gets a near-elite amount of spin on his fastball, slider and curve. He's also proved he can be used as a long reliever or as a late-inning option.

There are a couple bullpen spots up for grabs this spring, but after getting a peek at what the new front office and coaching look for in a player, Stratton checks a lot of the right boxes.

Middle-relief Robbie Erlin

This bullpen needs a lefty, and there aren't a lot of options. The only southpaws on the 40-man are Brault and Sam Howard, and the two most high-profile non-roster invitees are Erlin and Holland.

Erlin is coming off a disappointing 5.37 ERA with the Padres in 2019, but he had a respectable 3.61 FIP and was a reliable arm out of the bullpen in 2018. His fastball and curve both get good spin, and when it's working, he can use it to get ground balls or whiffs.

If the Pirates decide they want a sinker-baller in the bullpen instead, this spot could go to Holland.

Middle-relief Edgar Santana

The forgotten man in the mix for a roster spot this year. Santana is back from his 2018 Tommy John surgery, and he could provide a nice boost to the Pirates' bullpen.

He had an impressive rookie campaign in 2018, finishing with a 3.26 ERA and 3.58 FIP. While his batted ball data was not as flattering — a concern if the ball is still juiced heading into 2020 — if he can replicate his microscopic walk rate from 2018 (4.1 percent), he should be fine.

Middle-relief Nick Burdi

Ignore Burdi's ERA from last year. It was radically inflated because of his small sample size. What we did see was he has wipeout stuff that makes major-league hitters whiff and strikeout. All that needs to be done now is keeping him on the field.

“It’s one of those things that just, at this point, kind of needs to get done," he said during PiratesFest. “A full season needs to get under my belt.”

Middle-relief Michael Feliz

Feliz's output has been less than the sum of his parts. He ranked in the top 30 percent in baseball (or better) in fastball velocity (95.1 mph), strikeout percentage (30.5 percent), average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and expected batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA allowed in 2019, but turned in very middling results: A 3.99 ERA, 4.71 FIP and 1.26 WHIP.

Feliz has more to offer, and perhaps Marin can help him unlock that next level.

Set-up Richard Rodriguez

Both of the set-up men are in the same spot. If they pitch like they did in 2019, the Pirates will have trouble holding onto leads late. If they pitch like they did in 2018, the Pirates will have one of the best 7th-8th-9th inning trios in baseball.

Rodriguez finished last year with a 3.72 ERA, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He allowed eight home runs in the first month and a half of the season, going 0-3 with a 5.49 ERA, two blown saves and a -0.583 WPA. He was demoted to triple-A then, and after a few more rough outings in May, he finally found his form again in June. He recorded a 2.30 ERA and 1.19 WHIP from June through the end of the season, an encouraging sign heading into 2020.

Set-up Kyle Crick

Crick's fastball sits in the upper-90s. His slider gets more spin than anyone else in baseball. It's almost impossible to square up any of his offerings. But his walk rate skyrocketed to 15.5 percent last year, and he stumbled to a 4.96 ERA in his second season with the Pirates.

Crick has terrific stuff. It's just a question of if he can throw it in the zone enough — or get enough chases — to lower that walk rate. He was able to do it in 2018, and he can do it again in 2020.

Closer Keone Kela

Kela had to battle through a shoulder injury and was suspended a couple times during the 2020 season, but when he was on the bump, he was lights out. He paired a high-velocity fastball with a wipeout curveball to finish with a 2.12 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.

"I’m excited to watch him," Shelton said. "I mean, it’s a big arm with really good stuff. I’ve had multiple good conversations with him this offseason."

Rodriguez and Crick are Kela's most likely competition for the closer gig, but I'll commit to Kela in this role. He has the stuff and the experience from his time with the Rangers to be one of the game's best closers. He may be moved midseason if the Pirates aren't winning come the trade deadline, but until then, the ninth inning is his.

Our preview series:

Friday: Ten pressing questions
Saturday: Projecting the opening day lineup

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