Among the many moving parts of the rotation, the fifth spot has remained in flux. Its current occupant, Jeanmar Gomez, has pitched well enough that he might keep the spot for a few more weeks.
Gomez, who will start series opener today against the Houston Astros, has earned the chance. In his past three outings, all starts, he has a 1.93 ERA and 11 strikeouts to go with five walks in 14 innings pitched. Gomez pitched five times in relief before sliding into the rotation.
"Jeanmar's still spinning out of that fifth spot because he performed admirably as well as a long man, a pure long man, a few times," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's given us what we need there as a five-inning guy, basically."
Gomez has not pitched more than five innings or thrown more than 79 pitches in an outing this season. In his previous start, he kept pace with New York Mets ace Matt Harvey and retired the final 10 batters he faced in five innings of one-run ball. A batted ball in the first inning hit him in the right calf, which tightened as the game progressed and forced him from the game after the fifth inning.
Gomez said the calf was fine now.
Hurdle said Gomez's spot in the rotation depended on several factors.
"Couple things to be considered," Hurdle said. "His productivity, [Charlie] Morton's health, [Jeff] Karstens' health. Morton's got three more outings in the rehab, Jeff's just starting to ramp his up. James McDonald played flat ground catch [Wednesday] so that's still down the road."
After three more rehab outings, the earliest Morton will return is June 5.
Karstens, who is scheduled to throw four innings and 65 pitches Saturday for Class AA Altoona, is on a similar path and could return a couple of days after Morton -- if the Pirates choose to bring him back in the rotation.
McDonald said he could might throw a bullpen session Tuesday, but his return is not imminent.
"We'll see where it takes us," Hurdle said. "We'll keep our eyes on what's down below as well."
Hurdle likely meant top prospect Gerrit Cole, who started the season with Class AAA Indianapolis. Cole has a 2.55 ERA, but 20 walks and 31 strikeouts in 421/3 innings.
The floating date after which the Pirates can call up Cole without worrying about him eventually earning Super 2 arbitration eligibility, sometime during the first or second week of June, is drawing near.
Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin are on the minor league disabled list, leaving Andy Oliver and Kris Johnson as the other options in Indianapolis. Johnson is not on the 40-man roster.
Given the progression of the rehab assignments, his performance and the options in the minors, Gomez seems secure for the next few starts in the fifth spot.
Gomez has helped the rotation compile a 2.59 ERA in May, which entering games Thursday ranked second in the major leagues behind the Washington Nationals.
"I like the rotation now," Hurdle said. "There could be an addition or two moving forward. The depth has never been better. I do believe there'll be more innings out of the starters as they move forward."
Before Thursday, the starters' combined 211 innings of work ranked 26th in baseball. The bullpen's 1431/3 innings ranked third.