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Will the Pirates snap pitching “slump”?

There is a lot to be desired from Pittsburgh’s starting pitching rotation, and frankly 2023 might not be much better.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Colorado Rockies
Mitch Keller was a dim bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Pirates rotation.
John Leyba-USA TODAY Sports

I feel like every time I am tasked with a story on the Pittsburgh Pirates, it ends up being negative. I don’t necessarily like writing negatively, but I do enjoy having some fun at the Pirates’ expense when I can. For most of my life, the Pirates have been losers; lovable, but losers nonetheless. Make no mistake though, being stationed away from home, I never hesitate to rock a Pittsburgh fitted ballcap so that everyone knows where I’m from. However, I will also never hesitate to ask when? When will the Pirates finally put together a decent starting pitching rotation?

This is a storm that has been developing for a number of years now as the Pirates have continued to fail to put together a quality squad of starters. Pittsburgh’s problems usually involve their lack of spending money in free agency and extending contracts. While those problems are partially the issue, the Pirates have also just done a lousy job at finding and developing the talent.

In 2022, the Pirates finished 24th in rotation ERA. Granted, there were some bright spots throughout the season from Mitch Keller, who posted a 3.91 ERA, but he still looked unsure of himself at times. The rest of the rotation unfortunately did not get much better, as Zach Thompson and Bryse Wilson posted terrible individual performances, leading to an overall underwhelming group effort. Wilson and Thompson are no longer playing in Pittsburgh.

That kind of performance from the starting pitchers has been a decades long problem. In 2018, the Buccos were ranked 12th in rotation ERA, behind young guys like Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove. Following the departure of Gerrit Cole, this was the young rotation’s best showing, as Taillon and Trevor Williams both placed in the top 10 for ERA in the NL that season.

Gerrit Cole would find himself in the top 10 as well in 2015 as a member of the Pirates. Outside of those two years, those are the only times that a Pirates starter had finished top 10 in the NL for ERA since 2004 when Oliver Perez accomplished that feat.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals
2015 marked a strong year for Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, one of the few highlights from Pittsburgh starters in the 2010’s.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

So a decades long “slump” is where the Pirates have now landed. Gerrit Cole was traded to Houston in the 2017-18 offseason and has enjoyed great success in with the Astros and Yankees. Musgrove and Taillon were both dealt in 2021.

Possibly the worst part about this whole situation is that the Pirates had the talent. They had guys in place to succeed, and for one reason or another (money) they failed to retain those pieces. Cole (drafted in 2011) and Taillon (drafted in 2010) were the lone exceptions unfortunately in what has been an otherwise rough decade for drafting pitchers. They were never a part of an elite rotation, but there was a lot of upside in both of those individuals.

Moving forward, the Pirates need to find some way to fix their rotation. Signing a 42-year-old Rich Hill reeks of desperation as the Pirates move closer to 2023 Spring Training. I will give the Pirates credit for drafting a guy that I am really excited about in Quinn Priester. The 22-year-old prospect has shot up the Minor League system, and I expect a early promotion for him come Summer. He has the talent, but has also exemplified the attitude that you want to see in a starting pitcher, and that’s one of a winner.

Prospect Mike Burrows is another young pitcher who has rocketed through the farm teams, and has really shown a lot to offer in his young career. He may not be on the fast track that Priester is, but Burrows could certainly eat up some innings in Pittsburgh this coming season.

As a fan, the Pirates have always been my team. As a journalist, I have always had to be critical of the Pirates to do my job. For all the reasons I listed and more is why the Pirates frustrate me, because I want to see them do well. With that being said, they will not do well if they continue to fail to build a quality rotation and capitalize on young talent when they have it. In the spirit of being optimistic however, I do hope they make the change.