Williams: Three True Starters

The Pittsburgh Pirates are getting more creative with their pitching staff usage.

Last night in the majors, the Pirates used Dillon Peters as an opener, followed by Bryse Wilson for four innings. The move was a continuation of the long-relief approach the Pirates have been using with Crowe and Peters, where they’ve used their starters less, and their long-relievers more often. The difference here was flipping Peters and Wilson in order of appearance, and the results in the first experiment were solid.

This isn’t a strategy that the Pirates made up.

The Rays, for one, have been using an Opener and bullpenning games for several years. They’ve even done it as a contender, in case you’re wondering if this is a strategy that can carry over to expected winning seasons.

The Pirates don’t have to re-invent the wheel with this strategy. They just need the personnel, and the commitment to the approach.

But, they will eventually need some real starters.

Perhaps no team showed that better than the Rays themselves. The small market, small payroll team won 100 games last year, and none of their starters made more than 25 starts. They were eliminated 3-1 in the ALDS. Five pitchers made double-digit starts and pitched out of the bullpen. Only three pitchers were exclusive to the rotation, though two of them pitched less than 100 innings.

The “real” starters for the Rays were Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, and veteran starter Rich Hill.

If you look at the current Pirates, there’s not a standout yet for the “real” starters.

Mitch Keller is my pick of the current options to remain a full-time starter, though I think even he could benefit from an opener.

I think JT Brubaker would excel in a role like Wilson had last night.

Wilson has already received that push, so there should be little question about how the Pirates make room when Roansy Contreras arrives.

Jose Quintana is on a one-year deal, and will probably remain a regular starter to eat innings. Zach Thompson, I think, was expected to also eat innings as a quality back-end, but has so far dealt with some serious control issues.

Roansy Contreras will eventually arrive and give one hope for a true starting pitcher.

Quinn Priester should be right behind him.

Beyond those two, I think every pitcher in the system needs to be looked at in terms of how many times they might be successful through the order. As we highlighted in this week’s Prospect Roundtable, there are a lot of options in the system who could step up if the multi-inning reliever role gets bigger. But which pitchers can be starters?

Outside of Contreras and Priester, the best candidate right now might be Mike Burrows, who had a great outing last night in Altoona. You can see a bit of that action in this morning’s Daily Video Rundown.

Having said that, I’m not even sure I’d start Burrows off in the majors as a starter.

If the Pirates had their three true starters when Burrows arrived, then he could ease into the majors in a role similar to what Wilson played last night, or what Crowe has been playing all year. Either approach could allow him to eventually move into the rotation with strong performance. He just wouldn’t be restricted to either the immediate demand of six innings, or the much lesser consolation role of one inning appearances.

That would be a great system, if the Pirates could ease their young, potential true starters into the majors in a long-relief role.

For that to happen, they will need some starting pitchers. At least three. And you could argue that is three more than they have right now.

If they get their three true starters, this team could be on their way to contending. Ideally, they get to that point in time for next season. That could be possible if Contreras and one other member of the current rotation steps up, followed by the Pirates adding someone from the outside this offseason.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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