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Inbox: Who will claim last spot in Bucs' rotation?

Beat reporter Adam Berry fields Pirates fans' questions
February 8, 2019

Who's going to be the fifth starter? Any chance the Pirates use an opener like they mentioned a few months ago? -- Stephen M., Lakewood Ranch, Fla.The Pirates haven't officially named a fifth starter to join Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove in the rotation. But we

Who's going to be the fifth starter? Any chance the Pirates use an opener like they mentioned a few months ago?
-- Stephen M., Lakewood Ranch, Fla.

The Pirates haven't officially named a fifth starter to join Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove in the rotation. But we know the likely candidates, and I think it's safe to say based on what we've heard so far that right-hander Jordan Lyles will enter Spring Training as the favorite.
I wrote about Lyles last week and explored some of the changes he made last season -- both in terms of mindset and approach -- that led the Pirates to believe he'll be a more effective starter this time around.
Last year, Lyles threw harder, used more four-seam fastballs and curveballs and stopped worrying about "setting up" hitters for later at-bats. Some of his adjustments sound similar to those made by Charlie Morton after he left the Pirates. It's worth a shot to see if Lyles, 28, does indeed still have room to grow "between potential and performance," as GM Neal Huntington has said.
But maybe someone will convince the Pirates otherwise. They always enter Spring Training with an idea of what they might do, but they've shown a willingness to change their mind. Juan Nicasio earned a chance to start in 2016 with a crazy Spring Training, although he wound up being better suited for the bullpen. It seemed like Drew Hutchison was the favorite to land a rotation spot in '17, then he didn't pitch in the Majors at all that year.
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Right-hander Nick Kingham certainly has the stuff to be a solid Major League starter, and he seems like a lock to be on the team in some capacity since he's out of Minor League options. Steven Brault tweaked his delivery this offseason in an attempt to improve his command, and there are obvious advantages to having a left-handed starter at PNC Park.
(Fun fact revealed by Brault at PiratesFest: He and Kingham will be living together this spring while competing against each other. Two years ago, Brault lived with Williams while they were vying for the same spot.)
I think it would take a really rough showing by all three pitchers for the Pirates to consider using an opener. I'm personally intrigued by the idea and the data behind it, especially as the Pirates continue to add relievers like Francisco Liriano, but it seems like more of a backup plan at this point.
The Pirates used nine starters last season, so it's not like they will only start the five pitchers who break camp in the rotation. And remember, it's entirely possible that top prospect Mitch Keller will claim a starting spot later this year.
Are we really not going to do anything to improve at shortstop? That's so disappointing. I know Erik González might be a good fielder and "Hello" Newman (you can use that) can't be as bad as he was last year, but that seems like a missed opportunity to make the team better.
-- John S., Peoria, Ill.

It seems like the Pirates are going to roll with Gonzalez and/or Kevin Newman heading into Spring Training. Maybe something will change between now and Opening Day, like it did with left fielder Corey Dickerson last February, but those are their guys for now.

We know they pursued at least two possible upgrades by asking the D-backs about Nick Ahmed and expressing interest in Troy Tulowitzki. Nobody has met Arizona's asking price, and Tulowitzki chose the Yankees.
I expected them to do something else as well. I wrote several times this offseason that shortstop was a need, in part because Huntington mentioned in September the idea of acquiring a veteran infielder to pair with Newman. But I might have underestimated just how much they like Gonzalez in that role, especially compared to the free agents who could fit within their budget. They're also counting on Cole Tucker to take over the job sooner than later.
One interesting thing about Newman is that he's continued to work out at second base as well as shortstop, and there are some evaluators who believe he'll be a better fit at second in the Majors. So it'll be worth following how they use him and Gonzalez (and Tucker) this spring, because it should give us an idea of their long-term future at shortstop.
Let's say the DH comes to the National League. I wouldn't be happy, and we know [Pirates broadcaster] Greg Brown wouldn't be either! But how would the Pirates use it? Maybe they would finally actually sign a power bat?
-- Joe S., Pittsburgh

Liriano, obviously. Left-handed power bat. Next question!
That's a fun topic -- unless you're arguing online about whether the DH should come to the NL. That's less fun, more of an ideological slugfest that nobody ever truly wins. Anyway … First, let's be clear. This is still only hypothetical, based on reports. There is no indication that expansion of the DH is imminent or even certain.
Pirates set bar high with championship goal
The existence of the DH in the NL would theoretically allow them to be more proactive in signing one of those first base/DH-type players they've passed on the past few offseasons. I can't see them employing someone with zero defensive ability, though, given their inclination toward versatile players and many teams' tendency to cycle hitters through that spot. The Pirates value preventive rest, and DHing is like having a partial day off.
Let's think about their internal options, though. Colin Moran comes to mind given his offensive potential and defensive struggles, though he'd have to hit for more power than he did last year. That would hypothetically clear up third base for Jung Ho Kang or, soon enough, slick-fielding prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes. Same goes for Josh Bell, and it's a similarly interesting idea with first-base prospect Will Craig getting closer to the Majors.
Looking specifically at this season, it'd be a way to ease in Gregory Polanco after September shoulder surgery -- or a way to mitigate Lonnie Chisenhall's injury risk. If the Pirates carry three catchers, they could put both Francisco Cervelli and Elias Díaz in the lineup with Jacob Stallings still available as a backup. Kang could also be an option, although he was a solid third baseman during his first stint here -- might as well see if he can still hold his own defensively.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.