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Williams: Pitching Provides the Promise for the Pittsburgh Pirates

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If you’re looking for something to lift your spirits each day in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, might I suggest taking a look at the pitching.

Anywhere. Any level.

At the Major League level, the Pirates have a 3.55 FIP, which ranks seventh overall. Their 2.73 BB/9 ranks seventh. Their 0.84 HR/9 ranks eighth. They have the fourth highest called and swinging strike rate (CSW%). They have the sixth highest swinging strike rate. They have the highest chase rate combined with middle of the pack contact on chase swings. Hitters are making below-average contact in the zone.

The highlight in the early part of the season has been Jared Jones. Drafted out of high school in 2020, he’s the first prep pitcher to be fully drafted and developed under General Manager Ben Cherington, which is a big test for the development group. So far, Jones looks incredible, to the point of looking like an early Rookie of the Year contender. And that’s just me thinking, when I watch him pitch, that I can’t imagine there are any rookies doing better than this right now.

Down in the minors, there are prospects at every level. The obvious one is Paul Skenes, sitting right there in Triple-A. Skenes will be in the majors at some point this season, although the Pirates are taking it slow with the innings build up and season totals from the generational talent taken out of the college ranks last year.

Altoona has one to two top 100 prospects, depending on who you ask. The consensus is that right-handed pitcher Bubba Chandler is a top 100 arm, with a fastball that gets up to 98, and developing secondary stuff. Left-hander Anthony Solometo gets top 100 consideration, and has the stuff and deception to be a starter in a contending rotation. Chandler and Solometo were drafted out of high school, one year after Jones. It’s conceivable that they could both be in the majors by next season.

Skenes, Jones, Chandler, and Solometo with Mitch Keller in the mix? That looks like a fully home-grown rotation that could contend in the playoffs.

Dream Rotations don’t always come to be, but the Pirates have more starting options. 2019 first round prep pick Quinn Priester is in Triple-A, and will be used as depth this year. RHP Thomas Harrington, taken 36th overall in 2022 out of Campbell University, is injured but expected to spend his season in Double-A. Top ten prospect RHP Braxton Ashcraft is also in Altoona.

Pitchers in A-ball are harder to project, but the Pirates have a growing list of interesting arms to follow each night. Greensboro standouts are LHP Hunter Barco, and RHPs Alessandro Ercolani, Patrick Reilly, and J.P. Massey, who I’ve each written about recently.

Bradenton’s roster has players who are further away from the majors, and there are a lot of pitchers here with unrefined pitches that show potential. I’m always paying attention when RHP Khristian Curtis, RHP Carlos Jimenez, RHP Carlson Reed, LHP Magdiel Cotto, or LHP Michael Kennedy are on the mound.

Even when you get to the rookie levels, there is a lot of promise with RHP Zander Mueth and the currently injured RHP Jun-Seok Shim.

The Pirates have a good rotation this year. They’ve got at least one more long-term starter on the way plus depth in Triple-A. There are four players in the entire system who could be regarded as top 100 prospects in the entire game. More importantly, the success of Jones in the majors allows you to dream about the success of those other pitchers.

And what about that success from Jones?

Forget the rookie status. Jones has a 3.13 ERA, which ranks 36th out of 70 pitchers with 20+ innings. That’s middle of the pack, which is good for a rookie. His 3.07 FIP ranks 20th, which is even better. The FIP is better because Jones ranks 2nd of those qualified pitchers in K/9, at 12.52. He ranks third with an 0.78 BB/9. The only thing holding him back is a high home run rate, ranking 57th of 70. He could end this season an above-average starter, and that’s no longer a projection, but actual results.

It’s a long season, of course. The Pirates are also restricting Jones in the same way that they’re limiting Skenes. Jones had 126 innings last year. If he sees an increase to 160 this year, that would leave him with 137 innings for the remainder of the season. If he made 32 starts this year, he’d have less than five innings per remaining start, on average. If he makes 26 starts like last year, he’s got a little over six innings per remaining start. I’d imagine the Pirates are trying to find a balance to extend his start count, innings total, and with the important goal of pitching the entire MLB season.

The same limitations are in place for Skenes, and I wrote about those in my subscriber-exclusive column earlier this week. With both pitchers, the Pirates can get a boost for their 2024 results, but the bigger value is what they can do for the 2025-2029 pitching staffs, and maybe beyond. The Pirates need to balance their usage and health this year to ensure they maximize both for the following years.

Pitching provides the promise for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s starting to become clear, from the results at the Major League level to the growing group of prospects in the minors. You win championships with pitching, and the Pirates have the makings of what they need to contend for that outcome.

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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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