He did not garner the attention that some of his fellow pitching prospects did on the national scene, but Chad Kuhl has all the makings to solidify the back end of the rotation in 2017 and years to come.

Chad Kuhl was not a name that casual fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates probably knew before 2016, but after a solid debut with the club last year and a strong showing in spring training, he has all but locked up the fourth rotation spot for Pittsburgh.

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Build off a strong 2016 and spring training

Kuhl logged 70.2 innings for the Pirates last year, good for a record of 5-4 and an ERA of 4.20. Those are certainly good numbers for a back of the rotation pitcher. He has continued to pitch well during spring training, building off the success that he found with the big club. Kuhl has pitched just seven innings this spring but he has solidified his grip on a rotation spot. He’s given up three runs (two earned) over those innings, but the number that stands out this spring are his six strikeouts.

Both his total number of innings last year and this spring fall into the category of small sample size, and obviously the spring numbers should be not be taken too seriously. But in general, Kuhl has shown that promising ability to strengthen the rotation in 2017 and for the foreseeable future.

However there are some concerns

Kuhl showed that he can be successful even without being a strikeout pitcher. True, his K/9 of 6.75 is well behind that his teammates that will be in the rotation. Ivan Nova (7.06), Jameson Taillon (7.36) and Gerrit Cole (7.60) all have the ability to rack up a ton of strikeouts over the course of the season. Kuhl will need to rely on getting outs via the groundball.

But when groundball percentage is considered, Kuhl is behind those three pitchers in this statistic as well. His groundball percentage of 44.3 lags behind Cole (45.6), Taillon (52.4) and Nova (53.6). If Kuhl’s groundball percentage does not improve, he’ll need to either boost his line drive percentage (19.6) or hope that the fly balls he gives up stay in the ballpark. Last season 8.9 percent of his fly balls went for home runs, so perhaps he’ll have the same good fortune over the course of a full season.

Projection Time!

Both Steamer and ZiPS, projections that can be found on a player’s page on Fangraphs, are optimistic for Kuhl in 2017. Both project him being a strong member of the rotation, with Steamer seeing him start 19 games for 108 innings total, while ZiPS has him starting 28 games and accumulating 144 innings. Last season, Kuhl’s K/9 and BB/9 were  6.75 and 2.55, respectively. Steamer sees his K/9 going slightly down (6.67) and BB/9 going slightly up (2.67). ZiPS is similar in K/9 (6.45) but does project a better BB/9 than his 2016 rate (2.51).

Last year Kuhl had a 0.9 WAR in 70.2 innings and both projections see him ending at 1.0 in 2017. This would represent a very good season for a young pitcher such as Kuhl, especially since he’ll be the team’s probable fourth starter. If the pitchers ahead of him perform at the level they are expected to, Kuhl could put together a very fine season as a back of the rotation option for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

How long of a leash will management give him?

Kuhl has impressed Pittsburgh Pirates management during his minor league career and his budding major league career. But if Kuhl falters at the start of the season, how much leeway will he get before the team starts to consider other options? Nick Kingham will be in the mix now that he has recovered from his injury and put together a nice spring. With his natural talent, Tyler Glasnow could be back in the mix fairly quickly if he works out his issues.

So what it boils down to is that Kuhl may be the odd man out simply because of the potential in some of the other arms in the high end of the system. Glasnow has the ceiling of a top of the rotation pitcher if he figures out how to throw strikes consistently. Kingham has been another high draft pick that the organization was waiting to recover from Tommy John surgery. So this could easily turn into a situation where a successful Kuhl finds himself on the outs because of the success of more promising pitchers.

In the end, Kuhl has the makeup to be a very good back of the rotation pitcher. He may not have the ability to strike out a lot of hitters on a consistent basis, but the occasional seven strikeout game is not a stretch. He is not a flashy pitcher, but is able to get the job done quietly. Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington obviously saw enough in Kuhl to hold on to him even when other clubs were inquiring, and he now has 2017 to show management they made the right decision.

Photo Credit – AP

Ethan Obstarczyk

Ethan is a lifelong Pirates fan who resides in the east end of Pittsburgh. When not talking about, writing about or watching baseball, he also enjoys watching football and hockey along with movies and listening to some of his favorite bands. He can also be found on Instagram (ethanobstarczyk) and Untappd (Ethan_O).