The Pittsburgh Pirates added a few pitchers in the last week, with their 2023 starting rotation and bullpen becoming a bit more set.
The team signed right-handed pitcher Vince Velasquez to be a starter, and added a pair of left-handed relievers in Jarlin Garcia and Jose Hernandez.
For this week’s Roundtable, we’re focusing on the pitching with a simple question:
Where do the Pirates still need to add to their pitching staff?
The Pirates could still use a veteran starter and a lefty out of the bullpen before the 2023 season begins.
The starting rotation looks intriguing at the top, with Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras. JT Brubaker and Johan Oviedo should take the next two spots.
The fifth starter role should be up in the air, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a rental in that spot. One that has possible trade value, as well as some who is more of a certainty — rather than the best of a group of fringe starters competing for the final spot.
I’d rather see a solid pitcher in that spot through July, so they don’t rush a prospect like Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, or Luis Ortiz to the majors — with the latter needing time to develop a third pitch and have more consistent control.
With the three-batter minimum in place now, there is less of a need for lefty specialists. It’s not a bad idea to have a strong lefty option when you play half of your games at PNC Park.
It seems highly unlikely that Rule 5 pick Jose Hernandez will be thrown right into important spots if he makes the team out of Spring Training, but beyond him, there are zero options on the 40-man roster.
I’d only be adding a lefty if he’s also serviceable against right-handed hitters. Unlike the starting spot, I think the Pirates could go for more of a long-term piece here, because it’s not a strong spot in the minors either.
The Pirates’ needs with the pitching staff are the same as their needs throughout the roster. They have a great deal of depth, but they need frontline, above-average players.
The depth is especially extensive with the pitching. There are 22 pitchers on the 40-man roster (not including Jarlin Garcia, who’s still in no-man’s land as I write this). Of those, all but Max Kranick, who’ll be recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Jose Hernandez are ready for a major league role, or within as little as a month or two of being ready. Of course, Hernandez has to be on the active roster all season if they’re going to retain him.
The question is whether the Pirates have enough pitchers who profile as above-average starters or shutdown relievers.
With the rotation, the answers could be present already. That’d be in the form of Roansy Contreras, Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester (who’s not on the 40-man roster yet) and maybe Mitch Keller.
It’d certainly be nice if the Pirates had signed Jacob DeGrom or Justin Verlander, but that was never happening. So their rotation “needs” were, realistically, a bit less lofty. One thing they don’t need is another bounce back candidate they might be able to trade in July for still more depth.
Their one, realistic need for the rotation was a solid, veteran starter who’d give them at least average pitching over the full season. Instead, they brought in Vince Velasquez, whose primary skill is getting hit very hard. So they still need that solid veteran.
In the bullpen, the Pirates have stockpiled middle relievers with very modest ceilings, far more of them than they can possibly use. What they lack are guys who can put up zeroes in the late innings. Those middle relievers don’t fare well in that role, which we saw very clearly late in the 2022 season.
It’s possible, though, that some of the answers are already on board. Colin Holderman, Yerry De Los Santos, Hernandez, Colin Selby, Nick Mears and Robert Stephenson all at least arguably have the ability to be the sort of relievers the Pirates need. Relievers are so volatile, though, that it’s quite possible that none of those guys will come through.
Of course, the team’s unwillingness to spend means they won’t be bringing in any established late-inning stars, but that’s where the volatility of relievers helps. It seldom makes sense to spend big bucks on a reliever, so a money-conscious approach actually makes sense here.
The Pirates should be looking everywhere they can for relievers with potentially dominant stuff, even though they may be scuffling now. Oh, and lefties if possible. Neal Huntington found three outstanding closers that way.
At this point it’s kind of clear they are setting up the rotation to make it an easier transition for the top prospects that will be waiting in the wings in Indianapolis. Mike Burrows and Luis Ortiz are already on the 40-man roster, while Quinn Priester could also make his debut in 2023.
That’s all well and nice to have confidence in your prospects, but it leaves little room for error. It seems that the team is done adding to the rotation after signing Vince Velasquez, and will have some sort of competition for the fifth spot between him, Bryse Wilson and Johan Oviedo.
Adding another starter could make it a little bit harder to keep a path cleared for the prospects, but it also adds the depth that would make it easier to get through an entire season — and maybe steal a couple of extra wins.
During the Winter Meetings, the Pirates added to their pitching staff, but they didn’t really add to their pitching staff.
Adding left-handed reliever Jarlín García was a positive. At the time, the Pirates had zero left-handed options in their bullpen. From the 2019 season through 2021 – spanning 137.2 IP – García carried a 2.48 ERA with a 3.68 FIP and 4.28 xFIP. So, in the least, he is an established bullpen arm with a track record of success that should be reliable, rather than the string of options the Pirates have run through the last couple seasons.
The Pirates also added right-hander Vince Velasquez, who doesn’t move the needle much. My issue with the signing is that he’s been essentially written into the rotation from day one. If he was signed under the guise that he’d be competing for the fifth rotation spot in Spring Training, then fine. I don’t like that the front office openly communicated they were looking to add starting pitching, then settled on Velasquez.
I believe the Pirates still need two starting pitchers. Unfortunately, the off-season is at a point that the options available have now become very thin. If we’re considering the pool of free agents the Pirates are likely to dabble in, adding a left-handed starter like Wade Miley and right-hander Dylan Bundy would be up their alley. Both have at least had some more relatively recent success in the rotation, with Bundy having shown some immaculate command and could be an “upside” play if the Pirates found a way to untap previous velocity.
As for the bullpen, I’m a believer that it’s mostly fungible. The Pirates definitely aren’t going to be handing out backend reliever money. There’s also the fact if they were to sign any legitimate starters, the remaining arms that would’ve been in play for a rotation spot battle then get pushed to the bullpen.
I feel the success of the bullpen is going to center more around whether or not Oscar Marin and Derek Shelton are able to bring the best out of their arms.
I was a bit surprised by the fact that many seemed surprised when the Pirates announced Vince Velasquez as a starting pitcher. It seemed obvious, to me at least, that Velasquez was the next in line of budget-friendly free agent additions — following Jose Quintana and Tyler Anderson.
I get the outrage that came with the surprise from Pirates fans.
To this point in the offseason, Ben Cherington has shown an early trend in adding to one of the worst teams in baseball: Stabilization.
He stabilized the holes at first base and DH with early additions. Were they the most impactful first base and DH options you can add this year? No. Will they massively upgrade the positions over the 2022 team? Absolutely.
Velasquez stabilizes the rotation, but I feel this group needs actual leadership from a second veteran addition. The Pirates were pursuing Kyle Gibson, who signed with the Orioles. Gibson would have been an ideal choice for that second addition, making Velasquez more palatable as a fifth starter flier.
The difference between the two pitchers is that there’s a big question of what you’ll get from Velasquez. Gibson is a guy who can give you reliable innings all year, and who can lead the rotation with experience and performance.
Right now, the leader of the rotation is Mitch Keller. I think that 23-year-old Roansy Contreras can step into an impactful role. Both pitchers are young, with limited MLB success. It would be good for the Pirates to make them the number two and three guys, by adding a guy like Gibson.
I think the Pirates have a shot at matching last year’s rotation. From here, they would greatly benefit from adding a veteran starter who is more of a sure thing on the field. That will cost money, and should be one of their primary expenses this offseason.
As for the bullpen, I like how Cherington has stabilized that group. I wrote about the relievers on Tuesday. Again, this is where I would aim for veteran leadership, adding a setup man to complement and reduce the load from David Bednar.