Inbox: How does Brault's injury impact OD staff?

March 3rd, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Opening Day is less than four weeks away, and the Pirates have had to react to a couple curveballs within the last few days -- two injuries and a retirement. While the team enjoys a rare Spring Training off-day on Tuesday, it’s time to answer some of your questions in the latest Pirates Inbox.

What does the Steven Brault injury mean for the Opening Day pitching staff? Will they go out and sign somebody now?
-- Colin K., Pittsburgh

I still wouldn’t be surprised if they make a minor move late in Spring Training, when clubs set their rosters by cutting loose non-roster veterans and designating players for assignment. But no, recent events won’t send Ben Cherington sprinting to the free-agent market.

Brault’s shoulder injury brings some clarity to the rotation picture, because he almost certainly won’t be ready to pitch in games by Opening Day even if he starts a throwing program in exactly two weeks. They seem to be slow-playing Chad Kuhl a bit this spring, a smart move with a long season and his long-term future in mind. If Brault and Kuhl aren’t in the Opening Day rotation, Mitch Keller and Derek Holland each have a clear path to crack the five-man starting staff.

If everyone else stays healthy, they’d have a rotation of Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Keller and Holland with starting depth that includes JT Brubaker, James Marvel, Cody Ponce and potentially veteran Hector Noesí, among others. Eventually, Brault and Kuhl will work their way into that mix or possibly into the big league bullpen.

Brault’s absence, combined with Clay Holmes’ foot fracture and Tom Koehler’s decision to retire, has had a ripple effect on the bullpen competition as well.

Let’s assume Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Richard Rodríguez and the out-of-options Michael Feliz are in. Nick Burdi has looked nasty this spring, so his remaining Rule 5 Draft restrictions all but guarantee he’ll break camp on the Opening Day roster, as long as he’s healthy. Let’s also say that they feel confident that Edgar Santana, who’s looked healthy and effective, can handle a full workload or something close to it.

That leaves two open spots in the bullpen with plenty of competition for them. Right-handers Dovydas Neverauskas and Chris Stratton are out of Minor League options, so one of them could make it while leaving a spot open for a non-Holland left-hander. (Holmes is also out of options, so his delayed start to the season will give the Pirates more time to evaluate where he falls in the bullpen pecking order.)

Sam Howard is the only lefty relief candidate on the 40-man roster, though he could be optioned to Triple-A to start the season if necessary. Their non-roster lefty options include Robbie Erlin, Miguel Del Pozo, Williams Jerez, Nik Turley and Blake Weiman. It’s worth noting that Erlin can opt out of his deal if he is not guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Could the Pirates trade Chris Archer to the Yankees now that they need a starter?
-- Joey T., New York

My colleague Richard Justice recently suggested that as a possibility, and who am I to disagree with him?

Archer reported to Spring Training confident that this season will be better than the last two. If the veteran right-hander gets through this bout of neck stiffness and returns to his old form, he’ll be a prime trade candidate given his affordable salary, additional year of club control and track record in the American League East. He could yield some interesting prospects or perhaps a young big leaguer from a loaded, win-at-all-costs team like the Yankees.

I don’t know if it would happen this spring for a few reasons, the first of which is Archer’s delayed start. The Pirates would also risk selling low on Archer, which they simply can’t afford to do in their pursuit of adding talent. Finally, the Yankees probably want to evaluate their internal options before giving up prospects and adding $9 million to their payroll.

But that’s definitely a situation to monitor, whether it’s over the next few weeks or months. Keep an eye on the Angels, too. They might be in greater need of an impact arm if Griffin Canning’s injury turns out to be serious.

The Pirates have played pathetic during Spring Training. I mean just look at their [2-8-1] record and their [run] differential [of minus-31]. Have they already lost hope? I have.
-- Glenn D., Washington, Pa.

I’m not going to say you should feel one way or another about the Pirates at this point. You can be optimistic, down on their chances or anywhere in between. Just don’t let Spring Training results and records dictate how you feel.

Off the top of your head, what was the Pirates’ record in Spring Training last year? What was their Grapefruit League run differential in 2013?

(They were 15-15 last spring, when Jung Ho Kang led the Majors in homers while Pablo Reyes and JB Shuck tied for the team lead in hits. Their run differential was an MLB-worst minus-29 in 2013, when they finished 13-18. I had to look all that stuff up. I do not need to look up how the ’13 or ’19 seasons ended.)

Teams aren’t running out their full lineups yet, and the starters are only playing five or six innings at this point. Pitchers are testing out different sequences while catchers learn how their stuff plays. Hitters aren’t taking part in in-depth scouting meetings. For the most part, players are just getting their work in to prepare for the season.

After one recent outing, for example, Musgrove lamented the fact that he didn’t get a chance to pitch with runners on second and third base. Here’s betting you will never hear the hyper-competitive Musgrove longing for runners in scoring position during the regular season.

Some of this stuff is important, and that’s why Spring Training can be a fascinating time of year. The work being done by players and coaches, the decisions made by the front office, the development of prospects, the forging of relationships in the clubhouse and, of course, who’s healthy -- all those things will play a part in the games that actually count.

I know it’s tempting to make a big deal out of what’s happening down here, because it’s the only baseball we have available to watch and discuss, but all of it gets washed away the moment Opening Day arrives.