The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a disappointing team so far this season. They're on pace to win 87 games, which would be 11 fewer than last year. A lot can (and will) change between now and the end of the season of course, but with the sixth-best record in the National League, they wouldn't even get to play in the wild-card play-in game at this rate, the same game that's knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and become the bane of their fans' existence.
They've given up 17 runs in the first three games of their series against the Braves, who are merely on pace to be one of the worst offensive teams in the history of the sport. The pitcher who helped to avoid a series split against baseball's worst team on Thursday is Jeff Locke, who ranked among the 10 worst starting pitchers in the National League by both traditional and advanced stats heading into the game.
Sadly for the Pirates, they have no one in the organization capable of doing better than Locke and his rotation mate Jon Niese, who's been the third-worst starter in the NL by advanced metrics.
Oh wait, what's that? The Pirates actually have two of the best pitching prospects in baseball a phone call away at Triple-A? And one of them just turned in another absolutely unhittable performance mere hours ago?
The Pirates' duo of Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow heads the list of impact callups coming soon to MLB. With his six shutout innings Thursday, the 24-year-old Taillon lowered his ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis to 1.82, to go with that 51-to-5 strikeout-to-walk rate. Taillon's teammate Tyler Glasnow is a 22-year-old fireballer who's whiffed 54 batters (and allowed just one home run) in 44 innings, flashing a tiny 2.05 ERA. Rated as an elite prospect for the past three years, he was Baseball America's no. 14 overall heading into this season.
Underachieving team, two underachieving pitchers, two vastly superior pitchers waiting in the wings, but still toiling on the farm. What gives?
"I think this is mostly about Super 2," said the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's ace Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik.
Super 2 refers to the one-sixth of rookie callups in any given season who get summoned to the big leagues early enough to make them eligible for salary arbitration a year earlier than other first-year guys, thus costing their employers anywhere from a few spare bucks to potentially millions over the span of four arbitration-eligible years. The Pirates have set a recent precedent for this strategy too. They called up ace right-hander Gerrit Cole and talented right fielder Gregory Polanco right after their Super 2 dates passed, each time on the second Tuesday in June. While we can't yet predict with 100 percent accuracy which date the Super 2 cutoff will occur this year, some time around the Cole/Polanco date (or slightly later) seems like a strong bet for when we'll see Taillon make his major league debut.
That Super 2 dilemma has become an annual source of frustration for Pirates fans, and for supporters of a few other teams who take the long, budget-oriented view over a win-now-at-any-cost approach. This year, the decision's even more complicated, whether or not you count Niese's modest stretch of two straight good starts and Locke's run of three straight solid outings (before getting strafed at Wrigley Field last time out) as part of the calculus.
For instance, while Taillon is a more polished and experienced prospect, Glasnow has thrown just 85 innings above Double-A. Moreover, he's a two-pitch pitcher with an unreliable changeup and iffy command, having walked 42 batters in those 85 frames at Indianapolis. If the Pirates want to avoid jerking Glasnow back and forth between the majors and minors, they'd want to see him cut those free passes and refine his changeup first ... even though Glasnow's fastball/curve combination is so dominating, it may well be enough to overpower big-league hitters on its own.
Arguably the most controversial factor in play is Pittsburgh's place in the standings. We're not even at Memorial Day and the Buccos already sit seven games behind the first-place Cubs, who are by far the best team in baseball and a pretty good bet to run away with the NL Central crown. The Pirates "also might be looking at the division already being lost," said Sawchik, "so even less reason to promote and hand out extra arbitration years."
Here are a few other top prospects who should crack the majors soon:
The Nats' starting shortstop is Danny Espinosa, who's hitting an abysmal .202/.303/.298. Meanwhile, Turner has dazzled since coming to the Nationals organization with Joe Ross in the three-team trade with the Rays and Padres after the 2014 season (he didn't officially become Washington property until last summer, due to the since-eliminated Pete Incaviglia Rule). This season, Turner's batting .322/.383/.477 while showing off his dazzling speed by swiping 14 bases. The Nats have more money at their disposal than the Pirates, have shown much more willingness to spend it given their massive investments in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and other stars, and have a gaping hole they can fix right now. The wait here is stupefying to watch.
Lucas Giolito, SP, Washington Nationals
Few pitchers on any level can match Giolito's curveball, which could end up breaking the hearts of big-league hitters through 2030 or so. But if Glasnow brings concerns about inexperience and command issues, Giolito's are twice as pressing, given he's tossed just 77 2/3 innings above Class A, and is currently struggling at Double-A with 20 walks in just 30 1/3 innings pitched. Also Washington's rotation has been beastly, with staff ace and recent 20-strikeout man Scherzer carrying the worst ERA of the five at 4.01, and no one else higher than 3.10.
Blake Snell, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
The lefty phenom has already made his big-league debut, having mowed down the Yankees over five innings of one-run, two-hit ball at Yankee Stadium on April 23. But despite some hefty strikeout totals (47 in just 35 innings), Snell has struggled with some command issues of his own since getting sent back to Triple-A after that spot start in The Show, including a five-walk outing on May 5 that gave him 14 free passes over four minor-league starts. He's settled down since then, and his big-time pedigree (Baseball America ranked him even higher than Glasnow this spring) makes this holdout a bit head-scratching too. Then again, the Rays: a) have played a schedule riddled with days off, meaning they haven't needed a fifth starter much, b) have a long history of being hyper-cautious with playing time due to their own revenue issues, which make the Pirates look like the Yankees, and c) have reaped impressive results from current fifth starter Matt Andriese, who merely threw a two-hit shutout his last time out.
A 19-year-old wunderkind, Urias has a chance to develop into an All-Star starter over the next few years. The Dodgers might have other plans, though, albeit more immediate ones than the Pirates and Rays have with their own top starter prospects. Urias has been unhittable at Triple-A Oklahoma City, striking out 39 batters and walking just eight in 36 innings pitched, with just 21 hits allowed and a 1.25 ERA. Combine those credentials with the Dodgers' gaping bullpen holes in front of excellent closer Kenley Jansen, as well as the Dodgers potentially wanting to limit Urias's workload at this tender age, and we could see him become a high-leverage reliever at Chavez Ravine some time very soon.
Other potential prospect callups some time later this season: Byron Buxton, OF, Twins (again); Ozzie Albies/Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves; Orlando Arcia, SS, Brewers (though incumbent shortstop Jonathan Villar looks like Rickey Freaking Henderson right now).