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Pirates

Ability of Pirates pitching staff to shoulder load for rest of season remains to be seen

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, May 21, 2018, 6:12 p.m.
Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez reacts as he is removed from the game during the ninth inning against the Padres on Sunday, May 20, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez reacts as he is removed from the game during the ninth inning against the Padres on Sunday, May 20, 2018, at PNC Park.
Pirates catcher Elias Diaz celebrates with reliever Richard Rodriguez after defeating the White Sox Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Elias Diaz celebrates with reliever Richard Rodriguez after defeating the White Sox Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at PNC Park.
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova celebrates after getting the final out in the first inning against the Tigers Thursday, April 26, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova celebrates after getting the final out in the first inning against the Tigers Thursday, April 26, 2018, at PNC Park.

The race in the National League Central is so tight that events such as Ivan Nova dropping a soft flip from Josh Bell or Trevor Williams throwing to the wrong base or Felipe Vazquez blowing a save get magnified. Plus, you get beat by a last-place team at home three games in a row.

Despite their early-season success, the Pirates don't have much room for error because the Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs are at least as good, and might prove to be better in the long run.

Despite those flubs against the Padres, general manager Neal Huntington has assembled a pitching staff that usually doesn't beat itself with walks — second fewest in the National League with 135 in 411 13 innings — and includes one of the game's top closers.

Here are five thoughts on the Pirates pitchers and whether they are up to the task of carrying the load through September:

1. The Pirates will gain closure from the Gerrit Cole trade when Joe Musgrove joins the rotation as the fifth starter. Manager Clint Hurdle said Musgrove will start Friday in the opening game of the three-game series against the Cardinals at PNC Park.

Yet, there are questions about Musgrove. He's only 25 and had been a starter for 1 14 seasons before the Astros traded him to the Pirates.

Then, there's his shoulder. It apparently is pain-free now. But it also has acted up since February, keeping everyone wondering if the Cole trade strengthened, weakened or merely stagnated the Pirates' starting rotation at a cheaper price (Musgrove is on the books for $571,000, compared to Cole's $6.75 million).

But Musgrove arrives just in time. With only four off days through the Fourth of July, the Pirates need a fifth starter.

Who knows? Maybe he can do something his colleagues in the starting rotation have failed to do this season: average six innings per start.

2. It's hard to put a finger on what's holding back the rest of the rotation. Especially now that Jameson Taillon's finger has healed.

It's not outrageous to suggest Taillon was expected to do better than his current 2-3 record with a 3.97 ERA. It also is not a stretch to predict he will get better, perhaps as soon as Tuesday night in Cincinnati.

Ivan Nova has an uncanny knack for throwing strikes — eight walks in 56 13 innings — but is that a good thing when his ERA has risen to 4.79? You might have noticed pitches in the strike zone are easier to hit.

Who throws harder than Chad Kuhl? Not many. But three wild pitches and 18 walks indicate a need to harness his immense ability.

Trevor Williams is the rotation's leader in victories (five) and ERA (3.05), and he has the cool look of a stopper every time he pitches or meets with reporters (win or lose).

But he had a maddening start Sunday: four perfect innings and two others that netted the Padres four runs.

3. The bullpen has been mostly effective since the Pirates rid themselves of Josh Smoker, recalled Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez from Triple-A Indianapolis and made Steven Brault a relief pitcher.

Have you noticed something about Rodriguez's stat line? He hasn't issued an unintentional walk in 17 23 innings.

Huntington pointed out Sunday that the ability of Rodriguez and former starters Brault and Tyler Glasnow to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen eases some of the stress on the rest of the staff.

4. It's wrong to say trading Cole to the Astros was right when he has a 1.75 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 61 23 innings for one of the best teams in baseball.

But Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Colin Moran (.286) and Double-A outfielder Jason Martin (.364 in Altoona) look like a decent return — for now.

What if the Pirates didn't get Feliz from the Astros?

Would they have felt safe trading reliever Daniel Hudson for Corey Dickerson?

Could they have acquired Dickerson, who's hitting .307 and leading the team with 29 RBIs, without trading Hudson?

Perhaps, but it might have come at the cost of a better player.

Feliz, by the way, has the team's third-best ERA (2.70) while leading the staff in appearances (22) and ascending into that important eighth-inning role.

5. There was something about the way Vazquez reacted to his blown save Sunday that looked like a good sign.

He all but shrugged his shoulders and said, “It's on to Cincinnati, and let's win there.”

Like Williams and some other players (Sean Rodriguez and Jordy Mercer come to mind), Vazquez can accept an occasional bad outing as an inevitable result in a long season.

The Pirates were 21-0 when leading after eight innings before Vazquez fell on his face (almost literally), turned an ankle while catching a high-hopping bunt and did not retire a batter.

But he's the only pitcher on the staff who has a zero next to these three stats: HBP, balk and home run. That's a trifecta Hurdle can appreciate.

If you asked Hurdle to rank his chief concerns (a question he would refuse to answer), Vazquez would not appear on the list.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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