Pirates opening-day starter Gerrit Cole enjoying an impressive spring
March 20, 2017 12:15 AM
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole enjoying a successful spring.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates are two weeks out from opening day, but right-hander Gerrit Cole, their scheduled starter April 3 in Boston, was in regular-season form Sunday at LECOM Park. Cole tossed five innings of one-run baseball and chipped in offensively with a two-run single.
“He did some things that were just fun to watch,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It was good.”
The Pirates couldn’t be more pleased with how quiet Cole’s spring has been. Cole, 26, spent spring training last year rehabbing from the first of many injuries that derailed his 2016 season. In three appearances spanning 10 innings this month, including a start against the Dominican Republic’s World Baseball Classic team, Cole has allowed only one run on nine hits and a walk.
To compare this spring and last spring, in his mind, is a worthless pursuit.
“It’s totally different ballparks,” Cole said.
Cole’s stuff clearly is in a good place. His fastball regularly registered at 97 mph Sunday, when he fanned five in five innings against the Toronto Blue Jays, and he sequenced his slider, curveball and changeup effectively. The next two weeks will be for building arm strength and tighten his command.
“You want to be in the best shape you can when the bell rings,” Cole said.
While the primary question encircling the rotation is who will claim the No. 5 spot, the stability of the rotation depends largely on Cole. After tossing 208 innings with a 2.60 ERA in a healthy 2015, Cole started just 21 games last season and had a 3.88 ERA in 116 innings.
The Pirates believe there are signs the Cole of old has returned after a normal offseason.
“First and foremost,” Huntington said, “[he’s] healthy and confident. … That outing against the Dominican Republic was as good as we’ve seen Gerrit in a long time.”
The remainder of the rotation includes right-handers Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon and two empty spots. The No. 4 role will almost certainly go to right-hander Chad Kuhl. The four-man competition for fifth starter has featured plenty of body blows this spring, but no knockout punch.
Right-hander Drew Hutchison, owed $2.3 million this season, stumbled in his start Friday, allowing six runs in 3⅓ innings. Right-hander Tyler Glasnow bounced back from an ugly start Monday to turn in his best performance yet Saturday. Left-hander Steven Brault imploded in his third inning Saturday, but has otherwise been the steadiest competitor this spring. Right-hander Trevor Williams was good in an unofficial “B” game Friday, Huntington said.
On the whole, it’s an intriguing rotation — if healthy.
“Last year’s group had a lower ceiling but a higher floor,” Huntington said. “This year’s group has a lower floor but a higher ceiling. … With youth comes some challenges at times, and some guys that have a hard time stopping things from snowballing.”
In making decisions about the No. 5 starter, the Pirates will consider the track record, the body of work, and not “make a decision based on 12 innings here in spring training, good or bad,” Huntington said. Is there progress? Regression? Are the problems correctable?
“Ultimately you’re looking for growth from the younger pitchers,” Huntington said. “Are they ready to take that next step? We’re seeing signs of encouragement and also signs that we’ve still got some work to do.”
There’s a chance the Pirates won’t break camp with a fifth starter. After opening day, they have five off days in April and could make do with four starters and a spot start or two. On the other hand, Huntington said, there’s only one off day in May. They might use five starters in April in order to rest them before the grueling month of May.
“We’re still working through exactly who’s going to be there and how we structure it,” he said.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
Of note: Jason Rogers (ankle) returned to game action for the first time since March 1.
News of the day
Super-utility player Alen Hanson started in left field Sunday and silenced those criticizing his arm strength. Hanson, a natural shortstop, threw out two runners at the plate in the fourth inning. In the sixth, the Blue Jays’ third-base coach thought better of it and held up a runner.
"That was the game plan in the [fourth],” Cole said. “Just let them hit it to Hanson.”
“I can't remember the last time I saw a left fielder throw out two guys at home,” added manager Clint Hurdle. “Might have been 1982 opening day, Red versus Cubs, left fielder for the Reds threw out Billy Buckner twice at home. So it's been a long time since I've seen that.”
The Reds left fielder, as you may have guessed, was Hurdle.
Hanson smacked two doubles Sunday and is batting a .400 this spring.
Hanson, who will start Monday in right field, has been mostly sound in the outfield. Hurdle pointed out it wasn’t all smooth fielding on Sunday, though the strikes home stood out. Out of minor league options, Hanson hopes he is building a strong case to make the Pirates roster.
“If they give me the opportunity, I'm ready,” Hanson said. “Ready to do my job.”
Monday: vs. Rays, 1:05 p.m., Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, Fla. Radio: MLB.com.
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