It’s no secret that the Pirates rotation has been a major area of concern in 2016. The numbers are ugly. Tenth in the NL in runs allowed per game (4.76) while four-out-of-the-five pitchers who’ve made the most starts for the Bucs this season have a 5+ ERA and their best starter Gerrit Cole hasn’t made thrown a pitch in a live game since June 10 due to injury. There’s no question, the rotation has been brutal this season, and it’s amazing that they’re only two games under at this point. Only recently has Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl provided some stability to this staff after being called up from Triple-A Indy. Here’s the thing about the SP though—as horrible as they’ve been this season, the pitching in Indy and Altoona that’s knocking on the doorstep of Pittsburgh, is really good and even more important, deep. How deep is it? I think it’s the deepest starting pitching you’ll find at Triple and Double-A of any organization in baseball.
Everyone knows the name Tyler Glasnow by now, but there’s so much more on the farm that’s quickly rising and producing at each level. Let’s break each of them down as we could be seeing some, if not all, of these names in the next year or two. You could add Taillon and Kuhl’s name to this list, but I didn’t since they’ve both graduated to the Majors already with Taillon there to say and Kuhl at least earned himself another start or two.
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Tyler Glasnow: Pirates No. 1 prospect and MLB’s No. 8 overall prospect. What else is there to say about Glasnow at this time? He’s mowed down every level he’s pitched at since being drafted in the 5th round of the 2011 draft. The 6’8 right-hander owns a stingy 1.70 ERA through 16 starts at Indy this season along with 105 strikeouts in 90 innings for an incredible 10.5 K/9 rate. His career minor league K/9 is even better at 11.5. Even more impressive might be that he’s given up just 53 hits in those 90 innings and served up just three longballs all season. Glasnow might have the best swing-and-miss stuff that anyone has seen in Pittsburgh in quite a while. His problem has always been with control as he also owns a 5.1 BB/9 rate this season as well. He’s still working to get the walks down, but once he does and gets the call, the sky is the limit for Glasnow. I think he’s a future ace if he can limit the walks, but at the very least his worst projection I’ve seen is a solid No.2 in the rotation.
Steven Brault: Pirates No. 17 prospect. Brault was acquired along with Stephen Tarpley two offseasons ago for Travis Snider. Brault was an intriguing lefty, formerly an 11th round pick of the Orioles, but he had good numbers in the lower levels of the minors. Last season, he blew through High-A Bradenton in 13 starts and then surprised everyone at Double-A Altoona with 9-3 record and 2.00 ERA in 15 starts. Brault strained his hamstring running to first base and missed the start of the season. He’s since returned and is making a name for himself again in Indy now with a 2.57 ERA through eight starts, which includes a ridiculous 11.3 K/9. Since pitching at Altoona and above, he’s only given up three home runs in 125 innings. Brault looks like a solid middle of the rotation guy.
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Frank Duncan: Most of you are probably saying to yourself…who? Well you better get to know Frank Duncan quick. He wasn’t on the Pirates top 30 prospect list before the season, but he’s probably should be there now. Duncan is a former University of Kansas product who was drafted by the Pirates in the 13th round in 2014. He had okay numbers in his first two stops in the minors: 3.60 ERA at Low-A Jamestown and a 4.32 ERA at High-A Bradenton, but this season he’s flew up the charts. Duncan started the season at Altoona and quickly moved up to Indy after a 2.36 ERA (8.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9) through seven outings and just two starts. He was promoted to Indy and pitched exclusively out of the rotation for the Tribe. Through nine starts, he posted a 2.42 ERA and an 8.0 K/9 and 1.0 BB/9. The righty from the Bay Area is becoming a name to remember this season. I can’t predict if Duncan would stick in the rotation in the Majors or become a solid bullpen arm, but he just adds to the wealth of depth in the minors.
Nick Kingham: Pirates No. 12 prospect. I think people have forgotten about Kingham a bit since his Tommy John surgery last May in this “what have you done for me lately” business, but Kingham still ranks as the Pirates No. 12 prospect coming into the season and he’s on his way back to the diamond as he threw living batting practice last month. Kingham owns a 3.35 ERA in the minors and had made 20 starts at Indy prior to his injury early last season. He saw success at Indy as well with a 3.77 ERA and 7.3 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. I could see him sticking to the type of comeback Taillon has had, starting back at Triple-A and depending on the results, pitching a half season there and hopefully see the Majors soon after that. Kingham is not as talented as Taillon, but provides the Pirates with another good arm.
Trevor Williams: Pirates No. 24 prospect. Williams is a former second round pick of the Marlins in the 2013 draft and was dealt to the Pirates for Richard Mitchell in October 2015. Williams just adds to the depth of this minor league pitching. The righty had a late start to the season after experience some right should inflammation. But following five scoreless innings in a rehab start at High-A Bradenton, Williams moved up to Indy and has made eight starts to mix reviews so far. He holds a 4.70 ERA, but has been hit a lot with 50 hits in just 38 innings and looks to be a project of a former Marlins prospect for the Pirates minor league coaching staff.
Clay Holmes: Pirates No. 15 prospect. Holmes is a tall right-handed prep pitcher from Alabama, who was drafted by the Bucs in the 9th round of the 2011 draft. In his first season of pro ball, Holmes had the lowest ERA in 2012 of any Pirates farm hand with a stingy 2.28 ERA at short-season State College. Holmes struggled, however, with his control and ended up having to do Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2014 season. Holmes returned last season and pitched well in limited time in Bradenton before starting this season at Altoona. Through 15 starts with the Curve, Holmes has a 4.67 ERA and 6.2 K/9. The walks are still a bit of an issue with a 3.8 BB/9, but at age 23 he’s right on schedule with where he needs to be at Double-A.
Brandon Waddell: Waddell was the first draftee from the 2015 draft to make it to Double-A, which is surprising given the Pirates strategy to promote players (especially pitchers) through the system. The southpaw from Texas won a College World Series title with the University of Virginia and was the winning pitcher in the deciding game of the Series against Vanderbilt. Waddell made his debut last season in short-season West Virginia before starting this season at High-A Bradenton. He blew through the Florida State League quickly with 4-0 record and 0.93 ERA (29.0IP/3ER) in five starts to earn his promotion to Altoona. He’s scuffled a bit with the Curve with a 4.88 ERA in 10 starts with a 6.6 K/9, but control problems walking four batters each nine innings. Despite his struggles at Double-A, Waddell is ahead of the game at age 22 and will most likely spend the rest of the season in Altoona developing as a pitcher.
Tyler Eppler: Pirates No. 28 prospect. Eppler is another Pirates draftee that is moving up through the ranks quietly. Eppler was the Bucs 6th round pick in 2014 and he dominated Low-A Jamestown in his pro debut, then blew away High-A Bradenton with a 2.58 ERA in 14 outings last season. The right-hander has been with Altoona all of the 2016 season and has held his own with a 6-5 record, 3.71 ERA (94.2IP/39ER) with 5.8 K/9 in 16 starts. On another team’s prospect list, Eppler probably is in the top 20, but with the Pirates loaded system, he ranks just inside the 30 at 28. Even if Eppler doesn’t see Pittsburgh, he could be a trade piece this deadline or next should the Pirates be in the hunt at that time.
I didn’t even get into the talented arms in the lower levels of the minors like Stephen Tarpley, Yeudy Garcia or Mitch Keller and you can see how loaded this system is especially at the higher levels. If you’re a regular reader here or follower of the North Shore Nine podcast, you know what I always say—”pitching, pitching, pitching, you can never have enough of it.” This is 100 percent true and the Pirates have plenty of it that will keep coming up and hopefully performing. That and the core they currently have up in Pittsburgh is the number one reason why the next couple seasons are so bright.