The Pirates' Sticky Fifth Starter Situation

How are they going to stay afloat with Taillon out?

Matt Koll
May 14, 2019 - 12:43 pm
Nick Kingham

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

All of the sudden, with just one key injury, a Pirates strength has now become an area of concern.

Jameson Taillon was placed on the 60-day injured list Monday with an elbow injury, leaving a gigantic hole in the starting rotation until at least June 30th.

The replacement plan? Well, I’m not sure there is one. Or at the very least, one that gives you confidence.

Let’s go through some options on the table.

Assuming Archer comes back as anticipated on Wednesday and remains healthy, there will be one spot open.

Continue to start Nick Kingham

This is assuming, of course, that the Pirates would rather start Kingham over his left-handed spot starter mate Steven Brault.

After Monday’s mess, there really is little difference in results between the two.

In Brault’s two starts: 0-0 W/L 7.2 IP 8 ER 3 HR 5 BB 7 K 9.39 ERA

In Kingham’s two starts: 0-1 W/L 8.0 IP 9 ER 2 HR 4 BB 7 K 10.13 ERA

Related: Dunlap: Jordan Lyles Has Saved The Pirates’ Backside

This seems like it would be the easiest option and probably the one the Pirates were hoping was going to work. They can’t possibly feel as comfortable settling for this option now.

Stretch out Francisco Liriano and/or Chris Stratton

Pirates fans are familiar with what Liriano can do as a starter, although he hasn’t started a game for the Bucs since the 2016 season in which he posted a 5.46 ERA before being dealt to Toronto.

Liriano posted three straight seasons from 2013-15 of sub 3.40 ERA’s as a starter and is sporting a 0.95 ERA in 19 relief innings this year.

Stratton is the lesser known and maybe more volatile option. Recently acquired from the Angels, the 2012 first round pick of the Giants started 26 games for San Francisco in 2018, going 10-10 with a 5.09 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .273 against him.

Go with “the opener”

 This is a concept made popular by the Rays and A’s last season in which a middle reliever starts, or opens the game, with the usual starter pitching right after him. This is supposed to prevent weaker starting pitchers from being overexposed by facing the opponent's best hitters too many times.

It also can be extremely taxing on a bullpen, especially if that “opener” or the starter after him struggles to get outs. You might find yourself four pitchers deep by the 4th or 5th inning.

It spreads out the workload, but has the potential to use just about every pitcher available.

General manager Neal Huntington may have eluded to this back on May 6th when he met with reporters by saying that they were going to go with Brault and Kingham in Archer and Taillon’s absence, but they were going to have to “figure out a way to cover those nine innings. It may be a little bit nontraditional.”

With a bullpen whose middle relief group features Richard Rodriguez (4.06 ERA), Michael Feliz (7.11 ERA) and Clay Holmes (6.75 ERA), that doesn’t inspire great confidence.

Sign Dallas Keuchel

This is the popular option but there are stipulations here.

Until the amateur draft starts on June 3rd, both Keuchel and free agent reliever Craig Kimbrel will have a draft choice attached to them. So if the Pirates were to sign Keuchel, they would have to give up a draft pick.

Keuchel has also made public comments that he isn’t going to take a discount just to sign with a team.

In other words…this *most likely* is not happening.

Sign a free agent

So, if the options inside the organization aren’t great, what’s outside it?

Also, not great. At least in the free agent pool.

James Shields, Bartolo Colon, Yovani Gallardo, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman are top free agents based on their WAR (wins above replacement) from 2018.

None of those pitchers have a WAR above “1” which essentially means they don’t provide your team much value.

Trade for a starter

This is always an option I guess, but who really knows what the market is here.

It may require checking in with other clubs and seeing which pitchers they’re willing to deal.

The Giants’ Madison Bumgarner has been linked to rumors and has a no-trade list that, for now, doesn’t include the Pirates.

Any way you slice it, it’s a sticky situation for the Bucs and one that the team and fans should be concerned about.

At this point, I’d take my chances with moving Liriano into the rotation and see what I can’t get from him. I don’t expect ‘13-‘15 Liriano, but something remotely close (maybe in a 4.30 ERA or below range?) would suffice until Taillon returns.

Even then, this rotation has questions surrounding it, one that could be answered Tuesday night with Joe Musgrove getting back to form after two straight disastrous starts.  

Can Jordan Lyles be this good all season? What exactly do the Pirates have in Chris Archer? Is Taillon going to be the same when he returns from injury and is it only a matter of time before he gets injured again?

Let’s see how it plays out.

Right now, unless an unprecedented move is made from the front office, Liriano is ultra-effective or one of Brault or Kingham completely turns it around, I see that fifth starter spot being an issue for the next month or so.

They need all the help they can get to stay in the NL Central race.

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