The hand injury that is going to sideline Josh Harrison until June is an example of how a team’s plan can change with just one pitch. Fortunately for the Pittsburgh Pirates, they have some players at the upper level of their minor league system that they have reinforcements if another injury knocks out a starter.
No baseball team is going to be able to complete and entire 162 game season without dealing with it’s fair share of injuries, an embarrassingly obvious observation that is probably making you question reading the rest of the words below. Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates will be fielding a team for the next six weeks or so without veteran Josh Harrison as he deals with a broken bone in his hand, it shows how important it is for an organization to have players in the high minors that can step up when a starter goes down. The Pirates have plenty of players (Sean Rodriguez, Adam Frazier, Max Moroff) that are capable of playing in Harrison’s absence, but if they did not, they would have had to turn to their minor league system for a replacement.
But what if another starter gets injured and has to miss a significant amount of time? Or what if one of the starters falls into a slump and the team needs a fresh bat or arm? Below are a few of the players in the high minors that could make their debut with Pittsburgh this year.
Mitch Keller is the team’s top pitching prospect and one of the top right handed starting pitching prospects in the game. If he continues to move up the organization’s minor league system like he did in 2017 when he made stops at three different levels, he could very well be in Pittsburgh by the end of the year. Currently with Altoona, Keller has made two starts so far this season, including six innings on April 8th against Akron when he allowed no runs on two hits and two walks to go along with eight strikeouts. On the year Keller has a sparkling 0.77 ERA (1.87 FIP) over 11.2 innings, so while that is quite the small sample size, his resume from previous work in the minors indicates that he should be a quality rotation arm in the not too distant future.
A member of the 2015 amateur draft class, Kevin Kramer, the team’s potential heir to Harrison at second base, could also be in line for a promotion this summer. Slashing .263/.317/.289 in just 38 at-bats with Indianapolis this year, if there is one aspect of Kramer’s game so far in 2018 that might be a little concerning is his strikeout rate, as he has 13 strikeouts in those 38 at-bats. But given that for his career Kramer has struck out 165 times in 926 at-bats, there is reason to believe that those numbers will end up looking more like his career norms.
The urgency that was felt in the offseason of having Austin Meadows take over in the outfield have simmered since Corey Dickerson joined the Pirates and started off so well with his new club. But if one of the outfielders would be sidelined with an injury, Meadows should be a top candidate for a promotion. While the power has not really been there for Meadows (he has just a .097 ISO so far this season in 31 at-bats, he is slashing .290/.333/.387 with a wRC+ of 107, so by that metric he is performing slightly above average. There is a chance that Meadows never becomes a real power threat, as the most home runs he has hit in a season is 12 in 352 at-bats across three levels in the Pittsburgh system in 2016. Given that this is now the third season that Meadows has been a member of the Indianapolis Indians, it may get to the point soon that he does not have anything else to learn or prove in the minors and needs to join the Pirates so the team can find out what he can do at the big league level.
Besides Keller, Nick Kingham is another starting pitcher that could have an impact with the Pirates this year. Injuries have derailed Kingham’s progress through the system, but if he is able to stay on the field this year, he could find himself in the rotation at some point this season. So far in 2018 with Indianapolis, Kingham has logged 17 innings over three starts, standing with a record of 2-0 in the early weeks of the season. He’s only allowed nine hits over those three games and has walked just four compared to the 21 strikeouts he has recorded. If he keeps pitching at this pace, it might not even take an injury to get him into the rotation. He might force the team’s hand as he appears to be ready for a shot in Pittsburgh.
With Jordy Mercer set to test free agency this upcoming offseason, Kevin Newman could be promoted to Pittsburgh at some point if the team decides to trade their veteran infielder at the deadline. Newman’s numbers are down a little this year with Indianapolis in the small sample size of 38 at-bats as he is slashing just .211/.211/.289, but given that last year he finished .283/.314/.373 at the same level, it is reasonable to think that he’ll see those numbers go up as the season continues. He has not hit for much power in the minors with just 11 home runs in 1,201 at-bats but he has shown a good eye at the plate with 91 free passes to 132 strikeouts. As long as he can play solid defense at a demanding position like shortstop, it will be easy to overlook his lack of power at the plate
Every team wants to see their players say healthy for the duration of the season, or miss as little time as possible. But the injury to Harrison shows that things can change with just one misslocated pitch. The Pittsburgh Pirates are fortunate that they have players available on the MLB roster that can fill in for him while he is out, but they also benefit from having a solid group of prospects already at Indianapolis, awaiting the call if the parent club is in need of their services.