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Williams: Will the Worst Even Happen?

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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.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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