Piggybacking looks to be in Pirates' future

July 8th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Manager Derek Shelton has said the Pirates will “probably be a tad more creative” with the final spot in their rotation rather than naming a traditional fifth starter. On Tuesday, he explained one inventive way the Pirates might fill that spot.

Shelton acknowledged that the Pirates have discussed having left-hander and right-hander function as piggyback starters to begin the season. While nothing is set in stone, the piggyback plan is clearly on the short list of Pittsburgh’s options with the rescheduled Opening Day about 2 1/2 weeks away.

“With those two guys specifically, if it was a situation where we did do that with them, a right-hander and a left-hander with their repertoires and how they attack hitters, it's an interesting mix for us,” Shelton said. “I've sat down and talked to him and Chad both about it, and that could be an opportunity for how they both pitch. But they're not the only guys we're talking about that in that spot.”

Shelton said over the weekend that the Pirates plan to have four starters “solidified in spots,” assuming they get through Summer Camp healthy. Those four are likely to be , , and . That leaves one spot open and two leading candidates, given their history in Pittsburgh’s rotation.

But rather than pick Brault or Kuhl, why not use both?

“The piggyback thing is just a little bit weird, but we’ve all done it. In the Minor Leagues, it’s not that uncommon,” Brault said. “If that’s what we end up doing, it’s not going to be too weird. It’s just more of a cemented thing of when you’re going to come into the game. … I’ve done the bullpen thing. I’ve done the starting thing. So, I might as well try doing something that’s in the middle.”

In the tandem-starter scenario, one pitcher would start the game and work three or four innings, then the other would take over and cover the next three or four innings. The idea involves the second “starter” beginning a clean inning rather than entering mid-inning.

Such a strategy is ideally executed with pitchers who present a contrast in styles. That’s the case with Kuhl, a hard-throwing righty with two breaking balls, and Brault, a lefty who relies mostly on his fastballs.

But which pitcher would be the starter and which one would follow? How would they make that decision? How long would the plan last? It’s too soon to say, especially since it’s only one possible direction they could take that final spot.

“I don’t know how any of it is going to work,” Brault said. “But Shelty isn’t an idiot, so I’m sure he’ll figure it out.”

The arrangement could help both Brault and Kuhl ease into the season. Brault said Tuesday that his next outing will be three innings. So he’s not far behind most starters, but he’s not going to be built up to throw six innings or 100 pitches the first week of the season. Meanwhile, Kuhl is returning from Tommy John surgery, and such a strategy would allow the Pirates to control his workload more carefully.

This season is the ideal time to attempt such a strategy, too, as clubs can break camp with 30 players on their active rosters. So slotting six arms into the rotation -- four traditional starters and two tandem pitchers -- wouldn’t necessarily put the Pirates’ bullpen in a bind, as it would in a normal season.

“I’m actually not sure if that’s what we’re going to do,” Brault said. “If we do, part of that is because we’re starting at 30 people, so you have the extended bullpen and also nobody is built up quite as much as you would be if you were pitching a whole season.

“I would assume that, even if we do that in the beginning, it’s probably not going to last very long just because, as the roster goes down, you can’t have guys who only pitch every five days just sitting around waiting.”

Brault moved out of the bullpen and put together a solid stretch in Pittsburgh’s rotation last summer, recording a 3.24 ERA in 14 starts from May 29-Sept. 7. This year, he was set back in Spring Training by a strained left shoulder that would have cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster in March. He spent the downtime not only getting healthy but also revamping his delivery to be more biomechanically sound.

“It was really good,” Brault said. “I feel much better than I ever have, more confident, more strong and not just kind of flying everywhere like I used to do, which is nice."

Kuhl has been only a starter for the Pirates, going 18-20 with a 4.37 ERA in 61 outings from 2016-18, but the Bucs have been secretive about his role all year.

While Kuhl prepared like a starting pitcher this spring, he was progressing into game action more deliberately than his counterparts. But the time off was apparently also good for him, as catcher noted on Sunday that the righty looked more comfortable on the mound. And his stuff? Stallings used the words “filthy” and "nasty” when describing his experience facing Kuhl.

“He throws really hard,” Brault said. “He's got a good, hard slider. But he's really worked on his curveball a lot, and he really likes it and how it plays off of his fastball.

“He looks really good. I'm pretty psyched to see what he's going to do this year, for sure."