The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to need to add starting pitching this offseason.
Even if they go with a few bullpen spots in 2024, the only starter they currently have is RHP Mitch Keller. The other option was RHP Johan Oviedo, who put up a 4.31 ERA in 177.2 innings last year, across 32 starts. As Jason Mackey reported, Oviedo is dealing with right-elbow issues, and Tommy John has been discussed.
With Keller being the only reliable starting option, the Pirates will need to look to the outside for at least two starters this offseason. The Pirates have been targeting starting pitching, but the uncertainty with Oviedo makes that need even more important.
One of my favorite sleepers for value on the free agent market is LHP James Paxton. The Pirates have had success with left-handed free agents playing up in PNC Park. Paxton is older, having just turned 35 last week, and had a 4.50 ERA in 96 innings with Boston. Pitching in the AL East is tough, but Paxton had good stuff, with above-average swing and miss and chase rates. Moving him to PNC Park for half of his starts could provide a value boost, as it did for Tyler Anderson, Jose Quintana, and Rich Hill.
That said, there are plenty of other options available on the market, and some who could be available on the trade market.
The Value of the Bullpen Arms
The Pirates can contend next year, even with their current starting situation. If they add two good starters, who can pitch full seasons and into the playoffs, they would just need their swingmen options to fill out the remaining spots.
Quinn Priester, Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, Bailey Falter, and Andre Jackson give the Pirates five options who could pitch multiple innings on a regular basis, with that group having the potential to combine for two more starting spots. There are pitchers among that group who could emerge to eventually pitch multiple times through an order. For now, the Pirates should let these guys focus on success once through.
Beyond this swingman tier of pitchers, the Pirates have the makings of a shutdown bullpen. David Bednar is one of the best relievers in the game, shutting down wins for the team. They also have two emerging shutdown options from the right side in Colin Holderman and Dauri Moreta, and one more from the left in Jose Hernandez. They could always use more bullpen depth, but this core allows them to get creative with the starting roles.
This is a trend throughout this roster, but the Pirates have strong depth and lack top-end options. Their targets should be at the top, keeping this group lower in the swingman/rotation depth tier.
Prospect Help in 2024
Paul Skenes, the first overall pick from 2024, will be on everyone’s watch list for an MLB debut. He needs to adjust to pitching every five days first, along with starting his development work in pro ball to prepare his pitches for the best in the game.
It’s more likely that we see right-hander Jared Jones in the majors first. Jones spent half of 2023 in Triple-A, with a few shutout starts at the end of the season.
The wild card candidates to join the pitching staff by the end of the year would be LHP Anthony Solometo and RHP Bubba Chandler, who should both begin the season with Altoona.
The Slow Move to Bullpen Games
Last year, the Pirates were in a similar situation to the one they’re in now. They added two starting pitchers in Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez. Their Opening Day rotation included Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, and Roansy Contreras. Luis Ortiz was a depth option. This is how the rotation played out for most of the first half of the season.
The 20-8 start in April has become infamous, due to the slump that followed. By the end of May, here were the starters the Pirates used, and their ERA/FIPs through that point:
PIRATES STARTERS (MARCH 2023-MAY 2023)
Pitcher – ERA/FIP
Mitch Keller – 3.25/2.83
Johan Oviedo – 4.50/4.10
Vince Velasquez – 3.86/3.87
Rich Hill – 4.76/4.29
Roansy Contreras – 4.50/4.60
Luis Ortiz – 4.35/5.38
Injuries were starting to hit the rotation. Velasquez went down in May, replaced by Ortiz. There was also poor performance from a few starters through that point. The Pirates were starting to shift Contreras to a swingman role, working behind Ortiz and the soon-to-be-promoted Osvaldo Bido.
The rotation saw a lot of changes during June and July. Quinn Priester arrived with the hopes of giving the Pirates another starting pitcher. Bido, Contreras, Ortiz, Ryan Borucki, and Carmen Mlodzinski worked into the bullpen game mix. Below are the starters, ranked by how many innings they covered during this two month span.
PIRATES STARTERS (JUNE 2023-JULY 2023)
Pitcher (IP as SP) – ERA/FIP
Rich Hill (60.1) – 4.77/4.56
Johan Oviedo (59.1) – 4.70/4.54
Mitch Keller (59.0) – 4.88/5.02
Luis Ortiz (28.0) – 5.46/6.65
Osvaldo Bido (25.2) – 5.26/3.80
Quinn Priester (15.2) – 9.19/7.21
Roansy Contreras (4.1) – 24.92/7.41
Ryan Borucki (1.2) – 0.00/1.46
Carmen Mlodzinski (1.1) – 0.00/6.26
The Pirates had three reliable starters, in terms of innings. All three of Hill, Oviedo, and Keller were below-average in terms of performance during this stretch. In fact, there was no good pitching during this time, which is a concerning issue.
During this exact same timeframe, the Tampa Bay Rays acquired RHP Robert Stephenson from the Pirates. Stephenson was added by the Pirates in late-August 2022 on a waiver claim. He performed well enough at the end of 2022, using a heavy-slider approach to get results against September talent. When it came to the start of the 2023 season, against better competition and fresh minds, the same slider from Stephenson was not nearly as effective. The Pirates had Stephenson in their organization for nine months and countless conversations. The Rays had him for two weeks and one conversation with their pitching coach, before he adjusted his slider into a cutter and became one of the best relievers in the game.
This is not the first time that the Rays have taken a pitcher from Pittsburgh and quickly turned him around with minimal conversations to reach a point of understanding and development. In the same time frame that every single starter on the Pirates’ staff declined with the numbers above, Stephenson threw 19.1 innings as a reliever, with a 2.79 ERA and a 2.63 FIP.
Oscar Marin has been the pitching coach since the 2020 season. We’ve seen development under him, but it’s been at a snail’s pace compared to the adjustment from Stephenson. The only adjustment the Pirates made with Stephenson across two months was allowing him to increase the usage of his fastball, away from the slider, which is the opposite direction of success for Stephenson.
The Pirates are going to need much better results. Stephenson is a huge red flag. There was a solution there, to be unlocked with an idea to adjust his underperforming pitch, presented, accepted, and implemented in one conversation. Meanwhile, I can’t off the top of my head think of a situation where Marin has turned around any pitcher so quickly.
Mitch Keller is the biggest development success story under Marin, though the changes have been slower, and they haven’t been accented by many sustainable improvements. Roansy Contreras entered the year after having success in the majors in 2022, only to struggle all of the first half of 2023. Luis Ortiz and Quinn Priester struggled as well. You could put it on the players each time, but when something like Stephenson happens, that raises questions about what qualifies Oscar Marin to remain the pitching coach with Paul Skenes, Jared Jones, Anthony Solometo, and Bubba Chandler on the way?
During the final part of the season, the Pirates went heavier on their bullpen approach, cutting down to just two starters after the Rich Hill trade, and ultimately seeing Johan Oviedo pitch his arm off with two more 30 IP months.
PIRATES STARTERS (AUGUST 2023-OCTOBER 2023)
Pitcher (IP as SP) – ERA/FIP
Mitch Keller (60.2) – 4.75/3.82
Johan Oviedo (60.1) – 3.73/4.81
Bailey Falter (27.0) – 7.67/6.70
Andre Jackson (27.0) – 5.33/5.44
Quinn Priester (24.1) – 7.03/6.38
Luis Ortiz (24.1) – 4.81/5.43
Osvaldo Bido (9.0) – 7.00/5.70
Colin Selby (8.0) – 4.50/4.13
Thomas Hatch (5.1) – 5.06/6.07
Ryan Borucki (2.0) – 0.00/0.26
Rob Zastryzny (1.0) – 9.00/1.26
The Pirates didn’t see good results from anyone the remainder of the year. Keller’s ERA was inflated, though his FIP was lower as he maintained his strikeout ability. The interesting thing about Keller is that he doesn’t have an elite swing and miss pitch, but he has a lot of pitches that generate around average swing and miss. His fastball generates above-average looking rates in the zone. His strikeout record comes from a strong pitchability approach.
The four swingman options were much better in relief. Falter threw 13.1 innings in three games as a reliever, with a 1.35/3.93. Jackson went 16.2 across five appearances, for a 2.70/3.26. Ortiz pitched 11.2 innings in five appearances, with a 4.15/2.33. Priester struggled in both roles.
What Do the Pirates Really Need in 2023?
With the news about Oviedo, let’s simplify the conversation about what the Pirates have for their rotation for 2023:
That’s all. One pitcher who has shown the ability to throw 32 starts, nearly 200 innings, and put up above-average results even deep into the season.
They should look for two more like him this offseason.
From there, Bailey Falter, Andre Jackson, and Luis Ortiz look better as long relievers in the bullpen game mix. Roansy Contreras and Quinn Priester are the best candidates to start those games. Both would need a rapidly quick improvement from what they showed in 2023, and again, the Pirates don’t have a good recent track record of quick adjustments for pitchers.
In terms of players who can reliably start games, the Pirates have one guy: Mitch Keller. Everyone else is a question mark in a starting role, which requires that each pitcher set the tone of the game. The trio of Falter/Jackson/Ortiz seem better when there’s a tone already established that is suited for their skills. Priester can’t yet establish a confident, positive tone in the majors in any role. Contreras has shown the ability in the rotation, and seems like the best bet for a rebound season in 2024. He should add a sinker this offseason, but that’s another article.
Simply put, the Pirates have one starting pitcher right now. I would trust Contreras in a bullpen role for spot number two. Beyond that, their hope would be massive improvements from Quinn Priester, or a quick arrival for Jared Jones or Paul Skenes or even Braxton Ashcraft. And it’s not ideal to rush the development of the younger players out of a need in the majors that can be addressed this offseason.
SONG OF THE DAY
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.