As I noted yesterday, the Pirates are 9-4 over their last 13 games with a rotation that, depending on how you want to spin things, only contains one or two people that was a part of the rotation at the beginning of the year (Jeff Locke was on the Opening Day roster, but he had to earn it in camp whereas Francisco Liriano was not, but only due to his weird injury). The point is that the Pirates just rolled through two weeks Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, and Brandon Cumpton in their rotation and AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jeanmar Gomez, Kyle McPherson, and Phil Irwin all on the disabled this.
This is impressive, and it's about to come to an end. This will create baseball's proverbial "Good Problem." Cumpton has already been sent back to Triple-A in anticipation of Gomez's return from the disabled list on Wednesday and another pitcher will have to be sent down to make room for Gomez when the time comes to activate him. James McDonald's rehab stint will be over soon, and he's out of options. That means the Pirates will have to trade him, designate him for assignment, or put him on the big league roster. After McDonald comes off of the DL, Wandy Rodriguez and AJ Burnett probably won't be far behind. This is going to create a glut of pitching in Pittsburgh. Even if you demote Ryan Reid to make room for Gomez, dump McDonald, then send Gomez to the bullpen and demote Duke Welker when Rodriguez comes back, you have decisions to make if everyone's still healthy when Burnett comes back. Let's assume that this plays out as laid out above — that Reid or Welker goes down for Gomez, that the Pirates decide it's time to let the McDonald experiment end, that the remaining Reid or Welker goes down for Rodriguez, and that Jared Hughes is optioned to Triple-A when he comes off of the disabled list. What does that leave us with?
The starters in that situation would be Burnett, Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole. The relievers would be Gomez, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Bryan Morris, and Vin Mazzaro. That's 13 pitches for 12 spots. The pitchers with options at that point would be Cole, Locke, Watson, Wilson, and Morris. That leaves the Pirates with the following choices:
1.) Designate Mazzaro or Gomez (or Morton, I guess, but that's unlikely) for assignment and move Charlie Morton into the long-man in the bullpen role. There are a few problems with this; Mazzaro and Gomez have both been pretty good in the long relief role this year, and it's not always easy for starters to adjust to throwing on an irregular schedule on the fly (remember that the Pirates were slow to do this with Justin Wilson late in the year last year). On top of that, it's possible that Morton loses his utility as a starter if he spends too long in the bullpen, which hurts the Pirates' pitching depth pretty badly if we're assuming that James McDonald is gone.
2.) Send Morris, Watson, or Wilson to the minors and move Morton to the bullpen. This is a bad idea, because it'd elevate either Mazzaro or Gomez to a higher leverage position in the bullpen, on top of all of the concerns about Morton relieving raised above.
3.) Send Gerrit Cole to the minors. This seems like the most likely outcome, since Neal Huntington said it'd be "smart business." It'd be smart business because it would preserve the depth that the Pirates have needed all year, as Tim points out in his post today, because it would put some more distance between Cole and the super-two line (Huntington says he's unconcerned with this in the first link and in Tim's post he says that Cole's likely clear already, but it's also true Cole is awfully close to the line and that the last CBA slightly changed the ways that super-twos are calculated, which means that it's very close), and because (and I haven't seen anyone mention this) it'd give the Pirates some more control over his workload to keep him ready to pitch down the stretch for a playoff push/playoff series.
There is a problem with this strategy, too, and it's that Gerrit Cole is insanely talented and seems pretty obviously ready to handle the Major Leagues at this point. And also that the Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to not only finish above .500 or win a wild card but are actually trying to win a division and earn a real playoff spot without having to play in a dumb one-game wild card playoff. At some point, you really do have to make the argument that you're better off with your best team on the field and the Pirates' best team includes Gerrit Cole in the rotation.
If anything, I think that maybe the most compelling case to send Cole down in July for two or three weeks is to control his innings. Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math says that Cole could make about 17 more starts as a regular member of the Pirates' rotation. At six innings a start, that'd put him around 185-190 innings combined between Triple-A and Pittsburgh, which is a lot more than the 132 he threw last year. The Pirates obviously think about and care about this stuff. I'm pretty sure there's a reason that Jeff Locke is being held to about a 100 pitch ceiling in the early part of this season, no matter how well he's pitching, and it's because he threw about 165 combined innings last year and the club almost certainly doesn't want him much higher than 200 this year. which is roughly what he's on pace for. If the Pirates have the abilty to send Cole down for two or three weeks and save him even one or two starts (there is also a discussion to be had about the stress of Triple-A innings on the arm vs. the stress of big league innings, but that's a very long discussion that I don't feel properly equipped to lead), that could make quite a difference.
Despite all of the perfectly logical and well-reasoned arguments for sending Cole down for a short while, thinking about actually doing it gives me the howling fantods. Beyond the fact that Cole will likely take it hard and that the fans will take it very hard, it's pretty easy to argue that demoting Cole just won't make the Pirates any better. With workload concerns for Cole and Locke that will probably keep both of them to approximate 100-pitch ceilings and necessitate a some skipped starts, plus the inefficiency of Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett, it's really easy to imagine finding Charlie Morton plenty of work as a swing-man/spot-starter. It's easy to imagine how Morton could succeed out of the bullpen, too, with a 95+ mph fastball, a heavy sinker, and his nasty curveball.
Of course, it may not come to this. All that Burnett has done to this point is throw off of flat ground. He hasn't thrown a bullpen session or been scheduled for a rehab start or anything of the sort. Beyond the possibilities for another injury to a starter, it's also possible that Cole will run into difficulties that make a demotion to fine-tune his approach much more palatable. His last start was superb, but his first two starts certainly raised a lot of questions. He'll start at least a couple or a few more times before this decision has to be made, and it's important to point out that this decision will be informed by those starts one way or another. Whether he looks like the Cole that the Angels saw or the Cole that the Giants and Dodgers saw wlll probably go a ways towards making that decision. It's also possible that Morton will simply remove himself from consideration from a rotation spot by being a little more Charlie Morton-y than he's been in the three starts since his return.
As noted at the beginning of the post, this is a good problem for the Pirates to have. Even if Cole does go down at some point in July or August, there's no reason to think it would be a long demotion. He'd certainly be back up in time for a stretch run in whatever capacity he can best serve the Pirates. Even with Charlie Morton's uneven start yesterday, he's looked pretty good since his return from surgery and I think that the Pirates could withstand a few turns of the rotation with him starting instead of Cole.
Let's see where things are when Burnett returns. Maybe this decision won't be as hard as it looks from here.