With Mitch Keller on the injured list, the Pittsburgh Pirates need to find a way to replace him in the rotation for now. Here are a few ideas they could entertain.
Mitch Keller was removed from Saturday’s loss against the Chicago Cubs with some sort of oblique injury. It was clear something was wrong as Keller started to miss his spots badly. Even if it’s nothing serious, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t about to rush back a 24-year-old who could potentially be a long term rotation anchor for the team in a 60-game season where they’re already set up for tanking essentially.
If he is out most of, if not all of the 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have tons of options they could turn to, and replace Keller’s spot in the starting five. Let’s go over a few of the options the Pirates have to replace the exciting young pitcher.
JT Brubaker has been nothing short of outstanding so far in his limited 5 innings of work, and that might be an understatement. He’s struck out seven of the 20 batters he’s faced, walked just one, has given up four hits, and hasn’t allowed an earned run yet. If he keeps this up, he could potentially be a National League Rookie of the Year candidate.
Brubaker was a starting pitching prospect throughout the minors and a solid one at that. At the Triple-A level, Brubaker has 140 innings pitched, a 3.02 ERA, 3.34 FIP and 1.28 WHIP. To go with that he has a strong 6.8% walk rate, 0.6 HR/9, but an overall unimpressive 19.7% strikeout rate.
If they don’t want to outright give Brubaker the starting rotation spot, seeing as he has done well in a long relief role, they could always opt to use a piggy backing strategy. So far, it’s worked well with Steven Brault pitching the first few innings of a game before giving away to Chad Kuhl. The two have combined for a 10 innings, 10 strikeouts, five walks, and just one earned run on six hits.
Brubaker and someone like Chris Stratton could be a solid tandem with Stratton pitching the first 3-4 innings of the game before letting Brubaker going 3-4 innings.
Experiment With Different Players
This year is pretty much a throw things at the wall and see what sticks kind of year. If they truly are tanking, why not try things out? This is the perfect year to do so. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a few options they could see if they work or not.
From the bullpen, they could someone like Cody Ponce. Ponce is a relief pitching prospect, but has experience as a starting pitcher. Before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jordan Lyles, Ponce was at the Brewers’ Double-A level. Through 38.1 innings, all as a relief pitcher, the right-hander had a 3.29 ERA, 2.56 FIP and 1.17 WHIP. He also struck out a ton of batters, 44 to be exact, while showing some decent control with a 7.5% walk rate. Plus he only surrendered 1 home run.
After the trade to Pittsburgh, the Pirates promoted him to Triple-A, and worked him out as a starter, but struggled. Through the 18.2 innings they tried him out in the rotation, Ponce had allowed 11 earned runs on four home runs, seven walks and 18 hits.
In the Arizona Fall League, Ponce worked as a starter and produced much better results. Through only 23 innings, the right hander had a 2.35 ERA, 2.33 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP to go with 27 strikeouts, just three walks, and two long balls.
Ponce isn’t the only player on the taxi squad the Pittsburgh Pirates could try out. James Marvel saw a bit of time in the majors last year. Although he struggled at the major league level, he did have a 2.94 ERA, 3.01 FIP and 1.09 WHIP across 162.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
Another player on their taxi squad is Max Kranick. Kranick was a 2016 11th round draft pick. He isn’t ranked as one of their top prospects, but he had an overall solid but unimpressive season at High-A ball last year. Through 109.1 innings, Kranick had a 3.79 ERA, but 4.23 FIP and 1.18 WHIP. His walk rate was just 6.7%, but he struck out only 17.3% of the batters he faced, and had a 0.91 HR/9.
That’s only a few of the names on the Pirates’ taxi squad, but they have a handful of others they could try out.
The Pittsburgh Pirates tried this out a little bit in 2019 with Michael Feliz and Montana Du Rapu, but didn’t get very good results out of either. However, given the situation the Pirates are currently in, it might not be all that bad of an idea to try it again.
Instead of piggybacking ]Brubaker, they could instead use someone like Sam Howard or Nik Turley to pitch the first inning of the game and then give away to Brubaker. Both Howard and Turley have minor league experience being starters in the minor league turned relief pitchers. This would give Brubaker more time than if he was piggy backing with another guy.
While this idea might be further out there, like I said before, this season is a see what sticks kind of season. Maybe the Pirates somehow find a diamond in the rough using an off-the-rails strategy.