Williams: Will the Worst Even Happen?

Pitching wins championships.

I don’t think I need to tell Pirates fans about this. We saw the impact of good pitching in the Wild Card games in 2014 and 2015, with the Pirates getting their seasons ended each year by one of the best pitchers in the game.

The Pirates don’t have a Madison Bumgarner or a Jake Arrieta for their 2023 group. They do have a young-ish rotation, with a nice collection of depth in Triple-A Indianapolis. They also have added a few interesting relief options.

Last week, I looked at the lineup, focusing on the ZiPS 80th and 20th percentile projections. My big focus last week was on the 20th percentile projections, looking at the low-end of expectations.

Williams: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

I wanted to take the same look this week, but in doing so, I noticed that many of the Pirates pitchers seem under-valued — that is if you buy their recent results.

The Starting Group

The Pirates signed Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez this offseason to join their “starting group”, as General Manager Ben Cherington put it after the signing of Velasquez. Hill is going to be a starting pitcher for sure, but Velasquez might have some competition. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Hill and Velasquez are projected to join the returning trio of Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, and JT Brubaker. Here is a look at the 80th and 20th percentile projections for the starting five.

Roansy Contreras: 2.5 / 0.7

Mitch Keller: 2.5 / 0.6

JT Brubaker: 2 / 0.3

Rich Hill: 1.5 / 0.1

Vince Velasquez: 0.8 / -0.4

I don’t think the 80th percentile projections are that difficult to accomplish for Keller, Contreras, or Brubaker. It just depends on whether you buy their 2022 trends.

Brubaker had a 1.9 fWAR last year, so a 2.0 doesn’t seem hard to obtain. Keller was at 2.1. Contreras had an 0.9 WAR in 95 innings.

Contreras is a rookie, and Keller and Brubaker have both performed to lower levels in previous years. They are all trending in the right direction, and could all easily hit those 80th percentile marks, due to the simulation weighing in the past results and ignoring recent changes.

Just because they’ve been that pitcher in the past, doesn’t mean they’re that pitcher now. The question is: Do you buy the 2022 results from all three?

I don’t think the Pirates should bank on the 80th percentiles, and they obviously didn’t with their two starting pitcher additions. Interestingly enough, in each of the last two seasons, Hill performed beyond the 80th percentile mark listed above. Obviously, a simulation is going to project a decline for a 43-year-old pitcher, but there might be something with Hill where age just doesn’t matter.

The rotation depth is strong. Indianapolis will have a prospect core that will feature Johan Oviedo, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, and Mike Burrows. ZiPS likes Burrows the best of the group, but they’re all in the same relative area for projections.

Johan Oviedo: 1.8 / 0.1

Luis Ortiz: 1.8 / 0.2

Quinn Priester: 1.8 / 0.5

Mike Burrows: 2.1 / 0.5

This is an area where I wouldn’t project the 80th percentiles. However, it raises a question: How many of these guys will perform to that 2.0 WAR level?

The Pirates had a 7.7 WAR from their rotation in 2022. I think you could project that from Keller, Contreras, Brubaker, and Hill, just expecting them to hit or come close to their 80th percentiles. From there, the 2023 squad has a lot of depth and upside.

Last week, the focus was on the 20th percentiles. If you notice, there aren’t many bad options here. This is a relatively safe group. It lacks top-end upside, but has enough depth to end up an average MLB rotation.

The Bullpen

The bullpen last year combined for a 1.8 WAR.

David Bednar had a 1.5 WAR and Duane Underwood Jr. had an 0.9 WAR.

I will let you do the math to figure out how much the rest of the bullpen struggled.

The Pirates have added some depth, bringing in Robert Stephenson at the end of 2022, and adding Jarlin Garcia and Luis Hernandez this offseason. I don’t have ZiPS numbers on the latter, but they are two of the top lefty options for this group.

The right-handers look like this:

David Bednar: 2.0 / 0.5

Robert Stephenson: 1.0 / -0.1

Duane Underwood Jr.: 0.8 / -0.3

Wil Crowe: 1.0 / -0.4

Yerry De Los Santos: 0.8 / -0.2

Colin Holderman: 0.4 / -0.3

Yohan Ramirez: 0.4 / -0.6

The first four guys in that group seem like good candidates to approach their 80th percentile projections. Bednar was at 1.5 last year, and his 80th percentile is 2.0. Underwood Jr. exceeded his 80th percentile with last year’s performance. Stephenson looked great at the end of the year.

Crowe had struggles, and ended up replacement level, but I think he could benefit from being used less. I would expect Garcia to join this group, with similar projection ranges.

From there, De Los Santos, Holderman, Ramirez, and Hernandez are the top candidates to fill out the bullpen. Dauri Moreta would join this group, falling closer to the Holderman/Ramirez range of the projections. I do want to focus on the 20th percentiles more with this entire group, because only Bednar has a positive value in that range.

How many of these guys will perform near that 20th percentile range? We can dream all we want about 80th percentile performing pitchers in the rotation, but a person can go insane ignoring the 20th percentile probabilities in the ‘pen.

The hope here comes two-fold.

First, the Pirates have some relief prospects — and they are lefties! Here are the top candidates:

Nick Dombkowski: 1.0 / -0.2

Tyler Samaniego: 0.5 / -0.4

Omar Cruz: 0.9 / -0.1

The MLB group could have a few long-term left-handed options by the end of 2023 with this group in the upper levels.

The bigger hope for the bullpen comes from the rotation depth. That starting group above is strong. I listed nine Major League arms. They might not all end up starters, but they should all end up in the big leagues. Some of those guys will shift to the bullpen, maybe this year.

There’s another group of upper-level starters who provide depth, but might have an easier path arriving in the bullpen.

Carmen Mlodzinski: 1.5 / 0.2

Cody Bolton: 1.1 / 0.0

Kyle Nicolas: 1.2 / -0.1

Odds are this trio will end up relievers — though any one of them could be interchanged with any of the previously mentioned names. In total, the Pirates have 11 starting options with an 80th percentile over 1 WAR and a 20th percentile that is, at worst, replacement level. This is solid depth.

A lot of that depth should shift to the bullpen, adding a few more solid arms to the above group — with higher floors than the current relievers.

The Pirates got production from a few relievers in 2022, but their bullpen was mostly a disaster of experiments. This group has the same potential for downside, but has more of a structured feel. They’re no longer relying on waiver wire wonders. They can turn to internal options.

If the starting rotation is stable, then the bullpen will stabilize on its own from the natural flow of rotation depth shifting better pitchers to an easier, reduced role.

I wouldn’t say that the Pirates have a great pitching staff. They were among the bottom third in the big leagues last year. What they’ve got now could end up average across the board in 2023 — with a lot of these guys being pitchers you can build around long-term.

Who knows?

Perhaps one of the guys above can emerge to give the Pirates that lights out starter they’ll need when they eventually build their way back to the post-season.

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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bucsws2014

I’m waiting for Cherington to sign Matt Barnes.

I’m not saying I’m looking forward to it. I just think it’ll happen.

1979andCounting

Comparing AAA WAR with MLB WAR is like……um, comparing a Chevy Bolt with a Mercedes Benz. Really difficult to connect the two.

1979andCounting

Yeah this confirms for me we are not deep enough to go to a 6-deep rotation. That is, if we are really trying to win games this year.

pittsburghbob69

You got RH RP’s like ColinSelby, JcFlowers, TahnajThomas, BlakeCederlind(if healthy), HunterStratton, NoeToribio, OsvaldoBido in AAA too.

I also like Nate Webb(RH) and Angel Perdomo(LH) as MiLB Free Agent signings and NRI’s.

Wilbur Miller

Webb and Perdomo are very interesting projects for the staff. Guys to watch, I think.

NMR

I ended up being redeemed by the end of the season in calling the 2022 rotation “shockingly competent”, and will parlay that confidence into staking the bold claim that the 2023 rotation will be good enough to win more than they lose.

Whether the bats do there part is another story.

ArkyWags

I tend to agree. At this time last year I thought the rotation was going to be among the worst I’d seen and they’d do ok on offense. The opposite happened. Now they can both be ok together and we may get somewhere.

jon6er

Crowe had struggles, and ended up replacement level, but I think he could benefit from being used less.”

That was an obvious conclusion last season but maybe Shelton will read your article and get the ‘message’ for this season but I doubt it.

Wilbur Miller

Here’s a solution: Use Shelton less.

jsdspud

If they don’t use him at all his ERA will be 0.00.

emjayinTN

I like the smooth transition from talking about the Pirate SP’s and then going straight into Johan Oviedo being one of the SP’s at AAA. I know it sounds exactly like what we have come to expect from the Pirates, but, is that your opinion?

Oviedo, after the Q trade, made 7 starts for the Pirates with a 2-2 record, 3.23 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 0.6 fWAR. He proved his worth to the Pirates and needs to have that good work validated by keeping him in the Rotation.

VV pitched in 26 games last year. He was in the CWS Rotation for his first 7 appearances, and after 7 Starts he had a 5.79 ERA, 5.47 FIP. I think he spent the rest of the year in the BP. A good BP/6th man.

1979andCounting

Happy to see your turn-around from yesterday’s post that VV will be trade material on 8/1.

SufferinBuccotash

Hopefully all that sorts itself out in ST, and VV isn’t just handed the 5th starter position.

NMR

Fellas, they have quite literally run out of pitchers two years in a row.

Tanking mode has made us forget there is very, very real value to stashing depth throughout your system if you plan to actually care about winning games into September.

emjayinTN

If the object is to move forward in 2023, Johan Oviedo and Roansy Contreras have to be in the Rotation to start the year, along with Rich Hill, Mitch Keller, and BRU. Crowe would be the primary 6th man/BP, and since we paid VV $3+ mil to get him, he would be the secondary 6th man/BP. Is Chase De Jong still on the 40?

jsdspud

I agree that you can’t have enough depth. I would bet that 8 of the top 9 starting group listed above start a game before September. Priester is the lone exception.

SBRO

Whole lotta average up and down the projections. No stars, no obvious scrubs, and enough depth that there’s no reason to keep playing the underperformers (though Shelton absolutely will, if given the chance).

Pirates pitching staff 2023: boring is the new interesting.

DanInNC

Well, look at it this way…by fixing the scrubs/losers on the margin of the roster (the 23rd-26th men) as well as the depth on the 40 man/AAA, BC has insulated against the apocalypse and picked up about 5-7 wins in the process. If they just don’t run out negative WAR guys in three spots every night, that by itself will net a few wins. 2024 is the year, and they will be transitioning to that this year, but it is clear that this team is much better than the opening day lineup from 2022. I will take boring at this point, rather than interesting in the “can’t look away from the car wreck” sort of way.

NMR

Right on man.

Jeff Sullivan, formerly at FanGraphs and now working for a big league club, coined the phrase “avoiding the awful” to describe the depth that made the 2015 Pirate club so good.

Boring is progress!

DanInNC

The veteran acquisitions roundtable article that just went up on the site has a bit of discussion about this, and all the PP guys were sort of the same “meh” opinon. But that is not necessarily bad.

You mention the NH 2015 days, and he was actually pretty good at team building to the 78-82 win level, then hope for the best. There is value in that, but he shouldn’t have kept doing it when they reached offseason 2015 and into spring 2016. At that point, they had a mature contender and needed to go all in (or at least all in by Pirates standards) by retaining some of their better guys and adding. That was Neal’s downfall.

Now BC is basically in the same 78-82 win type of window with these acquisitions that are decent and have high-end mentoring veteranosity. The difference between BC and NH? NH hit the 78-82 window as a general overriding philosophy of his tenure, while (I think) BC is using it as a stepping stone to the wide open window. These vets will insulate the percolating young guys from getting exposed, allowing offseason 2023 and spring of 2024 to be all in.

Maybe I am rose colored on this, and BC and Nutting could prove me wrong by slamming the window shut in 2024 and not put the best mix of young stars and high-end FA adds. If they do, shame on me I guess. But I just get a feeling that BC is in it to win it and wouldn’t have signed on if he didn’t have that understanding with the owner to finish what they start.

Just my 2 cents.

DanInNC

And just to add….I think that opening a window of contention is all about timing. If you try to open it too early, then you lose some of the impact. BC could have NOT added these vets and just played the young guys. But by making these moves, he is artificially stopping up the pipeline for just 4-6 months so that the pressure from below is so much greater when all that now MLB-readier talent is released to the Show….I think it could be a nice strategy.

NMR

Can’t disagree with much here, definitely a path forward I could see developing.

I, too, still think Huntington should’ve been more aggressive at the peak but I’ve also since become increasingly resigned to the fact that they’re never gonna compete pound for pound with the super teams that are being put together now. They’re never gonna have a roster that stacks up with what the Dodgers and Astros and Yankees and Mets and even Braves have put together over the past few years. Just an absurd depth of high end production for a club like the Pirates to match.

But I do think they can put 88-90 win teams out there, and those clubs still have a fighting chance to take down goliath. It’s Huntington-style teambuilding but with a target.

Appreciate the conversation buddy!

Last edited 8 days ago by NMR
DanInNC

Yes, I would be happy being a Tampa or Oakland type team-play at the margins and put up playoff-worthy teams most years. Being David to the the big market Goliaths is not a bad place to be. The pressure is all on them and the Bucs and play loose and aggressive.

AdministrativeSky236

Steamer projects us for over 80 wins, doesnt mean anything rn but i thought it was interesting

Anthony Murphy

I think Steamer is better to look at individually. If you add up the wins it’s 83, but also 97 losses. which is obviously more than 162 games. Based off that win percentage, it’d put the Pirates around 74 games which seems more reasonable.

1979andCounting

Good take! Talk about a media outlet riding the fence. The reader can get satisfied however he is looking at those numbers in a 180 game season!

Iowasteel

I really like Dombkowski, and love his story. But, he has only spent a partial season in AA. If he is in the majors before the end of the year, then either he has been ridiculously dominant (nice, but unlikely) or the Pirates have had significant injury problems or terrible results (or both) with their other relievers.

b mcferren

I would rather have Amir Garret on the team than Duane Underwood or Chase De Jong

Wilbur Miller

That 5.08 career ERA is hard to resist!

b mcferren

3.13 career era in PNC park

Wilbur Miller

So we’re going to bring him in to face our own hitters? Brilliant!

phieralph

He’s not allowed.

b mcferren

because he got into a fight with Kela and Eikstein?

charleskulik

I thought the Buccos lost Trey McGough.

joebaseball

So now that you can add it all up, what is the predicted win total?

joebaseball

Let’s hope it covers the best outcome as well, lol

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