Bumpy '16 provided valuable lessons for Brault

Bumpy '16 provided valuable lessons for Brault

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates believe we have not yet seen Steven Brault at his best.

Brault is one of four pitchers competing for the final spot in Pittsburgh's rotation, and he's the only left-hander among the Bucs' top eight starters. The Pirates won't choose Brault just to balance their entirely right-handed starting staff, but the 24-year-old could claim the spot -- especially if he flashes the form he showed early last year, before his big league debut.

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Making his sixth start for Triple-A Indianapolis on May 8, he dropped a slash bunt and hustled down the line. As he approached the bag, Brault extended his left leg to avoid the first baseman's foot. Rather than both of them rolling their ankles, Brault tore his left hamstring.

"Steven Brault prior to the hamstring [tear] was a different guy than we saw at the Major League level last year," general manager Neal Huntington said. "More power. More quality of stuff. More crispness of the stuff. If that guy's back again, he's going to open some eyes."

Brault, fully healthy this spring, refused to use the hamstring injury as an excuse but admitted it affected him. The lefty has more of a drop-and-drive delivery, so his push-off leg is critical for power and extension.

"I just had a harder time finding consistency," he said. "When you can't find consistency in your delivery, it's really hard to find consistency in your actual pitching.

"I didn't get the results or production I wanted the rest of the year. It did feel a little bit out of whack. Everything felt a little bit off. I wouldn't blame that for anything, but it definitely didn't help."

It took six weeks to recover, and Brault didn't return to Indianapolis until June 25. Two starts later, he had to fill a hole in the Pirates' rotation, so off he went to Busch Stadium for his Major League debut.

He shuffled back and forth -- three appearances in Triple-A, another big league start in Milwaukee, five more starts for Indianapolis -- before returning to Pittsburgh for good on Aug. 29. Brault struggled after that, with opponents posting a .919 OPS against him over his last six outings.

Overall, he wasn't satisfied with his big league numbers: 0-3 with a 4.86 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 29 strikeouts and 17 walks in 33 1/3 innings. But the experience should be beneficial as he competes for a spot this spring.

"It's funny, because my initial thought of last season is, 'Ugh,' but when I break it down with things that happened, I learned a lot last year," Brault said. "That's going to be something invaluable to me moving forward."

The path to a spot in the Opening Day rotation is not an easy one for Brault. Drew Hutchison has more Major League experience than his competition. Tyler Glasnow has the group's highest ceiling. Trevor Williams offers a ground-ball profile the Pirates often seek.

But if the lone lefty is at his best this spring, the Pirates will have a difficult decision to make before Opening Day.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.