The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff has been shuffling more than LMFAO this season (and they shuffle everyday).
It started early in the year with Jonathan Sanchez failing to keep his ERA under 10, which was quickly followed by James McDonald going on the DL with a bum shoulder after six ineffective starts.
By the middle of May, the team’s staff seemed like it was hitting its stride.
Francisco Liriano came back and looked like a stud. Jeanmar Gomez moved from the bullpen to the fifth slot in the starting rotation, joining Liriano, Wandy Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke in one of the better staffs in the National League.
Then, once again, the wind blew hard and knocked the rotation of its hinges.
Within a few weeks, Gomez, Burnett and Rodriguez all found themselves on the DL.
All of a sudden, lefties Locke and Liriano were the only guys still standing. They found themselves next to Charlie Morton, who had Tommy John surgery last year, and a pair of rookies in Gerrit Cole and Brandon Cumpton.
With all the chaos in the rotation, all the overworked arms in the bullpen and an offense that struggles to score four runs a game, what happened?
The entire team made adjustments and the win percentage just kept climbing.
Pittsburgh is now the proud owner of the second best record in baseball, but the same uncertainty that clouded its recent success, now storms over its future.
The Pirates have already sent Cumpton back to Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis, and now there is a possibility that Cole will join him.
How can that even be an option?
The team can likely delay Cole’s arbitration another year if it sends him down for a few weeks, but why send the kid down after three great outings?
What will a trip back to Indy do for Cole’s confidence? If you draft a guy first overall, bring him up two years later and watch him have three quality starts in a row, how can you justify ousting him from the rotation?
It has been only three starts, but if you’ve seen this guy pitch and have watched how the rest of the team has responded, there’s no way you can justify sending him down when Gomez, Rodriguez and Burnett all return from injury.
If Pittsburgh wants to keep this thing moving in the right direction—with its eyes on both a playoff berth this year and future success—it’ll keep Cole in the rotation for the rest of the season.
There are certain decisions that will have to be made if GM Neil Huntington does want to keep Cole around when the starters return, but none of them will cripple the team.
Right now, the team is carrying 12 pitchers and three catchers (Tony Sanchez, Russell Martin, Michael McKenry). If it was so inclined, the organization could feasibly carry 13 pitchers and send Sanchez back down to Indy before he even picks up his cup of coffee.
The team could also elect to move McKenry and use the defensive-minded Sanchez as Martin's new backup.
If the team held 13 pitchers, it could feature a starting rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Cole, Locke and Liriano.
The eight-man bullpen would need to be slightly repositioned, but the entire team could reap the benefits of the change. Pittsburgh would keep Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli in the same roles but add Morton and Gomez as long-relievers.
Morton has had arm troubles for a while now—it’s always been one thing or another. What if he came out of the pen? He could supply the team with some mop-up innings if needed and he could be a great power arm if he’s only pitching an inning or two at a time. The guy throws 96 mph in six-inning starts: don’t you think he can hit 99 mph consistently if he were only pitching an inning at a time?
Gomez started the season as the long man and struggled to go more than five innings in his starts, so moving him to the bullpen isn’t a crazy idea either.
The aforementioned option for the pitching staff is a projection of what to do if the entire team is healthy. What are the odds that the entire team is healthy? Not so good.
Mazzaro and Wilson have stumbled of late, so maybe they see a few weeks on the DL. Maybe the Bucs will send Morris back down to Indy just to keep his workload down and bring him back up when his services are once again needed.
The point here is that the team doesn’t need to send its rookie phenom back down to Indy.
Cole’s arrival in Pittsburgh has energized the team. Cole signifies a change in the culture out in the Steel City; a culture that has been bit by the small-market plague of absolute insignificance. When Cole starts, the fans are juiced to see him and the Pirates’ bats seem to make more contact and score more runs.
Remember what happened to the Nationals last year with Stephen Strasburg? They cut him off after however many innings, then failed to capitalize in the playoffs, after the move took the wind out of Washington’s sails.
In Pittsburgh, that metaphorical wind needs to stay in the sails. Right now, the wind is blowing the team towards a playoff berth that the city so desperately needs.
Cole needs to stand next to Burnett, Liriano, Locke and Rodriguez in the rotation, because it gives the team the best chance to win.
It’s not just about today, and it’s not just about the future. It’s about Cole as a possible stud for years to come in Pittsburgh. It’s about a team trying to put away 20 years of misery. It’s about a Clint Hurdle-led crew that wants to not just end the streak but put a ring on their fingers this year.
Telling Cole he’s not part of this year’s success is doing a disservice to him, the team and the organization.
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