Pirates have myriad options for fifth-starter role
Able to use a four-man rotation in first two weeks, final spot still up in air
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Pirates know the starting pitchers for their first dozen games of the season, which is more than what they knew when Spring Training began a month ago.
Still up in the air is their probable starter in Cincinnati on April 14, the first time they will need a No. 5, due to a pair of early off-days.
Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez is removing any doubt from his ability to join the set-in-stone trio of Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole. In a Minor League start on Thursday, Rodriguez stretched out to three innings, blanking Toronto farmhands on two hits.
The other two pre-camp rotation question marks -- Jeff Locke (injured) and Edinson Volquez, (ineffective) -- haven't been as affirmative, leaving that No. 5 slot unclaimed, but not without other candidates.
First up, Jeanmar Gomez would appear to have fumbled the opportunity on Thursday having been chased by the Rays during a four-run third. Yet, those were the first runs off Gomez after eight shutout innings.
"He's been lights-out," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "He got some balls up in the third inning, but it was all about the pitch count, getting him up near 60."
Next up, Phil Irwin was his customary filthy self. He pitched the seventh, his first inning of a spring heretofore spent waiting out a sore elbow, and set down the order with the help of his fabled curve.
"I felt great," Irwin said. "The curve puts so much stress on the elbow, you just have to give it extra time to get better."
Still coming up is Brandon Cumpton, who is scheduled to start Friday against Philadelphia in McKechnie Field, after not yet living up this spring to the promise he showed in a few shots last summer. Cumpton, who has an active streak of 15 shutout innings in the Majors, has given up 14 hits and seven runs -- four earned -- in 6 2/3 innings.
The pitch-off may have actually begun on Wednesday, with Stolmy Pimentel's three-inning start in another Minor League game. Pimentel, seen as a virtual clone of Gomez, allowed four hits and a run to Philadelphia's Double-A players.
Hurdle regards all of them as starting options, for depth if nothing else. He does not have to be reminded that last season the Pirates went through 11 starters by mid-June, or that one spring three of his Colorado starters went down a week before Opening Day.
"So we've got to establish starting pitching depth," Hurdle stressed. "In case something crazy happens late, you've got to have some arms built up."
Right now, the craziest thing imaginable would be the inclusion of either Locke or Volquez in the season-opening rotation. That two-week span before the need for a fifth does give them a hedge.
Volquez has not pitched since enduring a rough outing on Sunday against the Orioles, and is not on the pitchers' lineup for Friday's game either. He has been working on the side to iron out some of the mechanical issues still holding him back. If that turns into a drawn-out process, having him begin the season in Indianapolis is not out of the question, because he is not out of options.
Locke's fate is sealed; he will begin the season on the disabled list. The effects on him of the right-side discomfort are not obvious. He moves about freely, without the evident impediments of a full-blown oblique strain, which is a good thing. But its effect on his timetable is clear: He has not pitched since Feb. 27, and he wouldn't be stretched out enough even if he resumed throwing immediately, which he won't.
Irwin has the same problem, throwing his first inning 18 days before the opener.
"It was good just to get him back on the mound," Hurdle said of the righty. "We won't even know how he feels after this outing for a day or two. He got one inning in, and we'll see where he can go from there."
Irwin, 27, was actually the "first man up" in the Bucs' next-man-up starters shuttle of 2013, making his big league debut on April 14 against the Reds.
Gomez, cropped into the picture reluctantly because of his versatile value in the bullpen, blanked Tampa Bay through two innings, adding to his six shutout innings in earlier relief appearances. He then was rocked for five hits and four runs while managing only one out in the third.
It was an outing that highlighted the flaws that make Gomez a risky proposition to regularly start. He consistently got ahead of hitters -- throwing first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 14 he faced -- but didn't have the put-away stuff to exploit that advantage, primarily because he conceded not having varied his approach the second time through the Rays lineup.
"I need to work in my off-speed pitches more the second time," Gomez said. "I need to pitch opposite from the first time. They were sitting on my fastball. Seven of the eight [total hits he allowed] were on the fastball."
Gomez was invaluable last season in a variety of roles, short or long relief, as well as eight starts, all of them Pittsburgh wins. The Pirates do not want to be without the luxury of that versatility, but are confident of having someone else capable of doing the same. Pimentel has dibs on a staff spot since he is out of options, and inheriting Gomez's duties is a natural.
"We're considering [Gomez] for that starting-pitcher depth, just like last year," Hurdle said. "You need a guy like him, able to go multiple innings, in the bullpen. Sometimes you need two."
Gomez understands that role.
"I get to pitch more than an inning, to save the rest of the bullpen," he said.
He also may understand that it is the role to which he is best suited, since it seldom gives hitters multiple looks at him. In his career, opponents average the first time through a lineup is .253, and that climbs to .295 and .323 on the second and third looks, respectively.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.