The math is simple.
The Pirates had eight pitchers start for them this year. All but one of them — left-hander Derek Holland — can be under contract for 2021 in some form, plus right-hander Jameson Taillon is set to return in spring training.
The rotation finished strong this season, with Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker and Mitch Keller all putting together at least one good start to end the year on the right foot. Cody Ponce was promising in his three starts throughout the season, too.
Obviously, all eight of those pitchers can not be in the starting rotation next year.
The Pirates, predictably, are not tipping their hand yet. On Wednesday, general manager Ben Cherington was asked about how the pitchers from this year fit into next year’s plans, and he wasn’t willing to say that eight was too many pitchers or that moves absolutely had to be made.
He is correct, and the Pirates could certainly use as much organizational depth as they can get.
The problem is that a bunch of MLB-ready starting pitchers all on the same staff doesn’t make sense. If the Pirates were to build a rotation of Taillon, Keller, Musgrove, Williams and Brault, for example, then Brubaker, Kuhl and Cody Ponce, who all pitched pretty well in their opportunities, are on the outside looking in.
That doesn’t do much for their development.
So what can be done?
There is always the possibility of an offseason trade. Musgrove, Williams and Kuhl were rumored in some capacity or another at the trade deadline this season. After the deadline passed, in fact, it was reported that the Toronto Blue Jays were on the doorstep of making a deal for Musgrove.
If that’s true, then who’s to say there won’t be interest again? That is likely the preferable option from the Pirates’ perspective.
The other option would be to non-tender some of these players, essentially not offering them contracts for 2021 and letting them hit free agency. Williams may be a decent candidate for this, with the caveat that it may not be particularly appetizing to non-tender any of the Pirates’ under-30 pitchers.
He was paid the most money of the 2020 starters this year, though, and struggled more than anyone else in the rotation, tying for the most home runs allowed among all major league pitchers.
The problem, though, is that the Pirates’ pitchers aren’t all that distinguishable in terms of their future value.
Taillon will be given a chance. The Pirates have stuck with him all through Tommy John rehab, and there’s no reason for them to suddenly give up now. Keller is the youngest and best prospect, so he’ll get a shot, too.
The rest are either 26, 27 or 28 years old, have enjoyed some form of success in the majors, and don’t come with especially onerous price tags.
Granted, the other option would be to keep them all around and let them compete for the jobs in spring training, with those on the outside being designated for assignment or used in a bullpen role. After all, 2020 provided an extremely small sample size, and any more time for the Pirates to understand their pitchers, even in a setting like spring training, might be beneficial.
The problem with that is the risk of wasting a would-be starter because there isn’t enough room in the rotation.
While Cherington’s answer implies that players don’t necessarily have to leave the Pirates right now, it also acknowledges there are decisions to be made.
The Pirates have a whole lot of cooks in their starting-rotation kitchen. The six of them that ended the season on the major league roster strung together a bunch of good starts that had the Pirates playing their best baseball of the year.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, though, they have to choose between a bunch of relatively similar options. If all of them are around by spring training 2021, that only makes the decisions tougher.
Riddle decides to leave
JT Riddle cleared waivers, was sent outright to Class AAA Indianapolis, and the Pirates utility man instead elected free agency Tuesday.
The Pirates designated Riddle for assignment this past Thursday when they claimed right-handed pitcher Sean Poppen off of waivers from the Minnesota Twins.
Riddle appeared in 23 games this past season, playing every position except pitcher and catcher. He definitely struggled, hitting .149\/.174\/.224 with a .398 OPS while also committing four errors.
Due to the combination of Ke’Bryan Hayes’ emergence and Riddle’s struggles, he was likely not a part of their plans in 2021, though this recent succession of events likely guarantees that Riddle will seek work elsewhere.