In the past, I haven’t generally put much thought into rotations at the lower levels of the Pirates’ system. Most of the pitching decisions at those levels — I’m talking specifically about the two class A affiliates here — struck me as having at least some element of trial and error. I also figured the designation of “starter” or “reliever” didn’t mean all that much because the starters for much of the season are pitching just 3-5 innings per outing, and there are usually several relievers pitching that much.
It occurred to me this year, though, that the Pirates really seemed to be trying to stick with actual rotations at Greensboro and Bradenton. I can’t pretend to know their exact thinking, or even whether this was just a coincidence, but the Hoppers and Marauders both had relatively stable rotations in 2022. I should add “six-man rotations,” because the new regime in the minors of playing exactly six games each week, added onto the fact that nearly everybody in the low minors sat out 2020, almost seemed to demand a move to something resembling the “Friday starter,” etc., setup you see in college.
For Greensboro, two pitchers — Jared Jones and Nick Garcia — combined for 49 starts, which was 38% of the team’s total. Justin Meis took the ball regularly, for 16 starts, after being promoted two months into the season. Three other pitchers — Adrian Florencio, Sean Sullivan and Domingo Gonzalez — had rough seasons, but they still combined for 41 starts. So that’s all but 22 starts from six pitchers, one of whom wasn’t around for two months and three of whom pitched themselves out of the rotation at various stages.
The story was similar with Bradenton. Po-Yu Chen, Joelvis Del Rosario, Luis Peralta, Valentin Linarez and Carlos Jimenez combined to make 91 of the team’s 129 starts. That’s more stability than you might think, as Bradenton was the typical destination for injured, higher-level pitchers to make rehab starts, which obviously takes precedence. I count at least ten rehab starts from guys like Duane Underwood, Jr., Nick Mears, Sam Howard (remember him?) and others. One other spot in the rotation was taken up initially by Meis and, after he was promoted, Anthony Solometo, who was held back in extended spring training in the early season. They combined for 15 starts. Bubba Chandler made six late-season starts, effectively in the place of guys who skipped a start or three for a variety of reasons, like a wildness-related developmental timeout (Peralta), possible fatigue (Jimenez) and a late-season promotion (Linarez).
I hope what this tells us is that the Pirates think they can make judgments about which pitchers are potential starters and then stick with those judgments to a reasonable extent. In other words, it’s not just trial and error.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions about the rotations we could see in class A. The Pirates, of course, are going to have their own ideas. Their decisions about starters have come out of the blue for me at times — Meis and Del Rosario are examples — which isn’t surprising given that the Pirates are operating with a million times more information than I do. But allowing for surprise additions, these rotation could be pretty interesting.
A big part of this team’s rotation should be largely set in stone, barring mishap. Solometo, Chandler, Chen, and Jimenez should all be in there. Solometo and Chandler showed potentially dominant stuff this year at Bradenton and, in Chandler’s case, in the FCL. They both figure to be in, or at least very close to, the team’s top ten prospects. Chen had his ups and downs at Bradenton, but he features five potentially solid pitches and good command, very much a starter’s profile. Jimenez has some of the best stuff in the system, including an excellent change.
The rest of the rotation could depend on what the Pirates see in the offseason. That’s especially true with Peralta, who missed bats at a prodigious rate (14.5 K/9) but missed the plate nearly as often. Linarez already made a pair of starts for the Hoppers in an end-of-season cameo, so you have to think he’ll be in the rotation. And Del Rosario had a very solid season for the Marauders in 2022, although he may not have the upside of the others.
Two other guys who could get shorts are Florencio and Braxton Ashcraft. Florencio was the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2021, but 2022 was a disaster. The Pirates could try him in the Hoppers’ rotation again. Ashcraft was a second-round pick back in 2018 and appeared to be one of the team’s better pitching prospects, but he had Tommy John surgery in mid-2021. He should be ready for spring training in 2023 and could go back to Greensboro, where he was when he got hurt.
Projecting a rotation for the Marauders is more complicated than it is for Greensboro. Everybody has less of a track record. In fact, quite a few have none at all, due to the Pirates’ habit of keeping most pitchers drafted each year out of action until the following year. The Pirates used most of their 2022 draft picks on college pitchers, many of whom could end up as starters or relievers, but we don’t know yet what the Pirates have in mind.
There are two pitchers from the 2022 FCL team whom I’d definitely like to see in the 2023 Bradenton rotation: Hung-Leng Chang and Antwone Kelly. Chang had the sort of extreme ups and downs that seemed common in the system this year, for whatever reason. About half the time he struck everybody out, the other half he got hit around pretty thoroughly. His stuff is legitimately swing-and-miss, though, and at 6’3″ and — well, look at the photo — he should have some real projection. Kelly (pictured up top) is a short, stocky right hander whose fastball bumped up to the mid-90s after he signed out of Aruba. He also has a good breaking ball, and had a nice year in the FCL (1.29 WHIP, 11.2 K/9). The Pirates used him in relief in 2022, but I’d like to see him at least try starting. He did log only 23.1 IP this year, which isn’t terribly helpful. Kelly won’t turn 20 until the end of the 2023 season, so he’ll be a very good age for low A, if that’s where the team sends him.
Two other pitchers from the FCL Pirates should be in line for rotation spots. I would hope everybody will be rooting for Alessandro Ercolani, who signed out of San Marino (how would a team even know to send a scout there?). Except for occasional control issues, he had quite a nice year in the FCL rotation (1.19 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 11.6 K/9), and he’ll pitch all of next year at age 19. The FCL team also got a good year out of Bladimir Dotel (2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), who made a very brief appearance at Bradenton at the end of the year.
That doesn’t leave a lot of spots, and one will almost surely go to Thomas Harrington, whom the Pirates drafted 36th overall in 2022. BA and MLB.com ranked him 48th and 45th, respectively, in the draft pool, but he saw no action in 2022. I suppose it’s possible the Pirates could send Harrington straight to Greensboro, but it’s more likely he’ll at least start off at Bradenton. The Pirates’ next pick in the draft, lefty Hunter Barco, would be a good candidate for a starting job, but he had Tommy John and won’t be around in 2023 until late in the season, if even then.
Several other 2022 draftees could be good starting candidates. Two more lefties, Dominic Perachi (11th round) and Miguel Fulgencio (13th) were among the more interesting of all those college pitchers (well, junior college in Fulgencio’s case). They both put up some big strikeout numbers in school, but they might profile better as relievers. Sixth-rounder Derek Diamond looked very promising in 2021, but his stuff declined in 2022 and U. Mississippi didn’t use him in the College World Series. Putting him in the rotation seems like the most direct way to find out whether he can bounce back.
So, even without a surprise candidate, the Pirates have more than enough promising pitchers to put together a rotation at Bradenton.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.