Spring training is finally underway after Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Pirates begin the 2022 season with numerous question marks. The rotation is one of the largest and most unique spots of intrigue as the rebuild looks to turn a corner.
Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault are out, Jose Quintana and Zach Thompson are in to complement a young and developing staff.
Derek Shelton’s squad will be dependent on breakout seasons from Oscar Marin’s pitching staff to accelerate the Bucs to a viable team again.
A former top prospect, Keller has been up and down more than a Kennywood roller coaster to begin his promising career. The 25-year-old former second-round pick pitched 100.1 innings in 23 starts spanning the 2021 season, his third year on the Major League club. Keller struggled, collecting a 5-11 record, 6.17 ERA, and allowed 131 hits and 49 walks compared to 92 strikeouts.
Remote athlete and Pirates' RHP @mkeller11 started working with Tread in late October.— Tread Athletics (@TreadHQ) January 28, 2022
✅Peak bullpen velo before this winter: 95 mph.
✅2021 average FB velo: 94 mph
✅Peak MLB velo ever: 98.3 mph
Here he is throwing absolute missiles at Tread HQ, topping 100+ mph. pic.twitter.com/bmKKN7JRbc
Keller still has the potential to be a top of the rotation arm, compiling a 2.91 ERA in five games during the shortened 2020 campaign. An uptick in velocity and added control would help Keller tremendously to find more consistency and anchor the Pirates’ inexperienced staff. With the state of the rotation, it would not be surprising to see Keller get the nod on Opening Day.
If not Keller, JT Brubaker makes a compelling case to be the Bucs’ first starter on April 7 in St. Louis. The other could be the selection for the home opener in the most Pittsburgh way possible on April 12 (4/12) on 412 Day.
A sixth-round pick in the 2015 draft, Brubaker was a viable member of the 2020 and 2021 Pirates. His overall stat lines do not do the 28-year-old right-hander justice for his contributions as maybe the team’s best starter last year. Brubaker concluded last season with a 5-13 overall record and 5.36 ERA in 24 starts totaling 124.1 total innings. He struck out 129 batters but reached a 1.295 WHIP due in part to allowing 123 hits and 38 walks. Brubaker does not have the upside of Keller but pitched well in a number of games, being victim to an inning or two each game that got away from him and climbed his ERA up the charts. He has a good fastball and can bank off his breaking pitches to collect outs but will need to find an extra gear to avoid lopsided innings.
Acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Josh Bell trade, Crowe started 25 of the 26 games he appeared in during his second season in the bigs. He was also up and down, more so than Brubaker, and was punished by opposing hitters, collecting 25 long balls and 126 hits in 116.2 innings. Crowe’s 57 walks certainly didn’t help his own cause en route to a 5.48 ERA. Expect the 27-year-old righty to be in the mix and fit in the back end of the rotation until he delivers more quality outings over a frequent basis.
Another righty traded to Pittsburgh from an NL East team, Wilson was a former top prospect in the Atlanta Braves farm system. Wilson, 24, was the main piece acquired for closer Richard Rodriguez at last season’s trading deadline. He flashed potential in eight starts but lacks quality swing-and-miss stuff, striking out only 23 batters in 40.1 innings. His 42.6% hard-hit percentage and ground-ball rate of 33.1% are major factors to a 4.91 ERA, 5.35 FIP, and 1.240 WHIP. Wilson is intriguing and wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge as a middle-of-the-rotation starter if he has strong defense behind him.
The Final Four
The Pirates have decisions to make on the four pitchers above, but it is safe to say at least Keller and Brubaker will be a part of the first five starters when the Pirates depart Bradenton for St. Louis and later Pittsburgh. Four other starters in contention are Jose Quintana, Miguel Yajure, Zach Thompson, and Max Kranick. Pirates fans remember Quintana most fondly for an entire offseason of trade rumors following the 2016 season. He was eventually traded across town from the White Sox to Cubs close to the 2017 trade deadline.
Yajure (Yankees) and Thompson (Marlins) were also brought in through trades and will be given a chance to earn a spot. Yajure allowed 14 runs in 15 innings over three starts (four games) in his Pirates debut last year. Thompson was a piece of the Jacob Stallings deal and started 14 of the 26 games he pitched in during his first MLB season. Kranick is best known for pitching five perfect innings during a rain-shortened win against the St. Louis Cardinals. The home-grown product will be another young player to keep an eye on throughout camp.
Prospects to Watch:
Five of the Pirates’ top 10 prospects on MLB Pipeline are pitchers. Quinn Priester (2), Roansy Contreras (6), Anthony Solometo (7), Bubba Chandler (8), and Carmen Mlodzinski (10) bring a mixed bag of talent spanning different levels in their young career. Contreras is the most significant player to keep an eye on, making his MLB debut during the final week of the regular season and continuing to rise as a potential star. Priester’s progression and advancement through the system will also be important to watch for a 2023 call-up barring injury.
Other guys to keep an eye on are Michael Burrows (14), Jared Jones (15), Kyle Nicolas (24), Omar Cruz (27), and Cody Bolton (29). Cruz had a productive season with Double-A Altoona and is one of the only impactful left-handers. Bolton has dealt with numerous health concerns, not pitching since 2019, and could see intended time in Triple-A before arriving in Pittsburgh.