Chad Kuhl’s first career at-bat Sunday probably won’t be memorable.
He struck out, as pitchers often do at the plate. But it wasn’t a typical strikeout.
The Pittsburgh Pirates rookie fouled off five pitches and took another two for balls before he failed to connect with the eighth pitch he saw. In doing so, Kuhl drove Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw’s pitch count up to 37 on the night and 21 in the second inning. Kuhl then helped set the stage for fellow rookie Adam Frazier.
Frazier looped a ball into right field to open the scoring for the Pirates. Pittsburgh first baseman David Freese doubled three more runs across the plate the following at-bat.
The lead was enough to help Kuhl win his first Major League start. And the two rookies might have been the most important players in the Pirates’ 4-3 victory.
With this season being described as a “bridge” year with the goal of developing Triple-A prospects for 2017, performances like Sunday’s could be more common for the Pirates. The Pirates already have rookie pitcher Jameson Taillon in their rotation, and Kuhl and Frazier could be in the Majors permanently.
Who else from the prospect ranks could still help the team this year?
Tyler Glasnow, pitcher
The most frequent answer to the aforementioned question, the calls for the Pirates’ top prospect get louder and louder with each poor start from a pitcher in the Majors.
Glasnow’s pedigree is impressive.
In 16 starts with Triple-A Indianapolis, he’s 7-2 with a 1.70 ERA and a 10.5 K/9 ratio. He’s only allowed four hits in his last 19 innings. Glasnow has a ceiling that might be higher than even Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole’s, with a plus curve and a fastball that hits 97 mph.
Still, it doesn’t appear that Glasnow is in line for a call-up in the near future.
Especially because he has 20 walks in his last 23 innings. In his last start, 46 percent of his pitches were balls. Control issues typically don’t sort themselves out in the Majors, so it’s hard to blame the Pirates for not bringing Glasnow up just yet.
If he were to be called up today, it wouldn’t take long for calls to run him out of town if he continues to walk batters at the rate he’s at. So, for now, it just might be best to let him work out his issues in Indianapolis, rather than potentially stunting his growth in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have earned the benefit of the doubt with pitching prospects.
Josh Bell, infielder
There’s very little Bell has left to prove offensively. In Triple-A, he’s hitting .319 and slugging .526. He has 18 doubles and 11 home runs. At this point, Bell could step into the Pirates’ lineup and be an immediate contributor.
His fielding, however, is still a work in progress. He’s already committed eight errors at first base this season, and he’s on pace to have more than the 16 he had last year. So while his bat appears to be Major League-ready, the extra time in the minors certainly won’t hurt him while he tries to refine his fielding.
The biggest obstacle — other than his fielding — keeping Bell from the Majors is that the Pirates already have infielders John Jaso and David Freese. Still, with Freese being a possible trade candidate and Jaso struggling over the past month, Bell’s arrival in Pittsburgh could come sooner rather than later.
Alen Hanson, infielder
Hanson was up for a brief cup of coffee with the Pirates this year, getting a hit and scoring a run in a pair of at-bats in three games. The 23-year-old second baseman will likely remain in Indianapolis until the September call-ups, barring an injury to Pittsburgh second baseman Josh Harrison or shortstop Jordy Mercer.
Offensively, it’s been a bit of a down year for Hanson. He’s only hitting .247 with five doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs. He’s still utilizing his speed, stealing 18 bases in 24 chances and legging out five triples. The most optimistic development for Hanson might be his fielding, as he’s only committed three errors in 201 chances.
It’s easy to wonder what Hanson’s long-term future with the Pirates is. Once considered a top prospect and the shortstop of the future, he’s currently blocked at either middle infield or third base position until at least 2018. And Pittsburgh first-round picks Cole Tucker (2014) and Kevin Newman (2015) aren’t far behind, either. Hanson could still end up being a trade chip for the Pirates, though it would be interesting to see how if they fall out of contention.
Steven Brault, pitcher
Brault likely won’t see any time in the Majors in the near future because he just returned from a hamstring injury. However, if he can continue the run he had before his injury — 2.65 ERA and 11.4 K/9 in eight starts — he might surprise people and quickly emerge as a call-up candidate.
The Pirates seemingly can’t go more than a day or two without shuffling around their bullpen. Left-hander reliever Kyle Lobstein probably has some good frequent flier miles from all the times he has gone back and forth between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Brault could possibly give the bullpen some stability and be the team’s left-handed specialist if he keeps performing well. If Pirates starter Jeff Locke gets injured or loses his rotation spot, Brault could be the best candidate to take over because both are left-handed.
Other possibilities — RHP Trevor Williams, RHP Dovydas Neverauskas, SS Gift Ngoepe, 2B Max Moroff.
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