BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pittsburgh Pirates believe pitching is one of their biggest strengths this season, with four starters already penciled into their starting rotation.
That leaves the competition involving Jordan Lyles, Nick Kingham and Steven Brault for the fifth spot in one of the biggest position battles of spring training and a storyline that will face close scrutiny.
Where Kingham and Brault pitched for the Pirates last season, Lyles was signed to a one-year contract worth $2.05 million. That investment could make him the front-runner. He has a 31-52 record with a 5.28 ERA in 115 career starts over eight seasons.
Lyles started 22 or more games three times with the Astros and Rockies from 2012-14, but the 28-year-old right-hander has spent the past two seasons working out of the bullpen for the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers.
Lyles, who relies on a four-seam fastball and found success by increasing the use of his curveball, said the Pirates are “an organization that I admired from another dugout,” especially pitching at PNC Park.
“A lot of things added up that made it a pretty easy decision,” Lyles said. “First, it’s a pitcher’s park, and with the other four guys in the rotation — young, great stuff — and it’s one of those things where everything lined up. It’s definitely a place where I can see myself.”
The 27-year-old Kingham’s path to the majors was sidetracked by Tommy John surgery in 2015, but he recovered to make an incredible major league debut last April. The right-hander had nine strikeouts and no walks in taking a perfect game two outs into the seventh inning against the Cardinals. He struggled at times after that, however, and finished 5-7 with a 5.21 ERA and 1.382 WHIP in 15 starts.
“There’s definitely some experience that goes along with it,” Kingham said. “The uncertainty isn’t there, unlike last year when I had no idea what to expect, what the major league level was like. Now I kind of have an idea of what to expect and kind of know how to prepare for the task at hand.”
Brault, 26, is vying to be the lone left-handed on the staff. He was 6-3 with a 4.61 ERA in 45 games last season, including five starts. He pitched out of the bullpen but struggled with command of his fastball, a focal point of his offseason regimen.
While the winner will earn a job in the rotation, there remains the possibility of a consolation prize.
“When you’ve got Brault and Kingham and Lyles in the mix for a fifth spot,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, “that’s two guys that could go to the bullpen that are capable of starting.”
Where Kingham has spent his career as a starter but is out of minor league options, Brault and Lyles know what it’s like to bounce between the rotation and the bullpen. But that presents potential for a pitfall.
“The safety net is kind of a mental handicap. It can make you complacent a little bit,” Brault said. “You don’t want to be thinking, ‘If I don’t make it, I’ll still be there’ because, right now, I’m going for one spot and one spot only. Whatever happens after that, whether I get it or not, then we’ll go from there. My mind is solely focused on being that fifth starter.”
Lyles is approaching the competition the same way, having spent enough time in a relief role to know he has a great opportunity to earn a starting job in a rotation that could rank as one of baseball’s best. Lyles is aware his edge in experience means little if he doesn’t outperform Brault and Kingham this spring.
“Honestly, it all depends on performance,” Lyles said. “It doesn’t matter how much time you have. If I don’t do my job, there’s no job for me to have so I’m not worried about how much time I have on someone else. It strictly reflects on performance here in spring training and going into the season.”