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Pirates 2023 season recaps: Starting pitching

You can never have enough depth.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The injuries

It had looked as though J.T. Brubaker, who threw 144 innings in 2022, was making strides in camp before he went down with an injury that eventually led to him having Tommy John surgery. Top 100 prospect Mike Burrows, who was on track to debut this year, followed suit a few weeks later.

Then off-season acquisition Vince Velasquez, who had an ERA in April of 3.06 in large part due to increased slider usage, left his start early in Tampa Bay on May 4th with elbow discomfort. He gave it a second go on May 27 in Seattle but had to leave early again. This time for good. Having season ending elbow surgery shortly after.

Three pitchers the Pirates were hopeful to at the very least eat a few innings in the 2023 campaign. Lesson (re)learned, the answer to how much depth you need is always one more.

Mitch Keller

Keller built off his success down the stretch in 2022 to have a very good first half in 2023, earning player of the week honors in May after throwing a complete game shutout and received his first All-Star selection.

He carried a 3.31 ERA into the second half but waned a bit down the stretch as the innings piled on and the velocity wavered at times. He was shut down just five and two thirds' innings short of the 200 innings pitched mark, more than 35 innings higher than his previous high of 159, which he set in 2022. His 210 strikeouts set a new franchise record for RHP, surpassing A.J. Burnett’s mark of 209 from 2013.

Ending up with a 4.21 ERA across 32 starts, Keller finished fourth in the NL in innings pitched, tied for fifth in strikeouts, eighth in K/9 and BB/9 and tied for eighth in wins with 13 among all qualified NL pitchers.

For now, Keller has established himself as the Pirates’ best starter. A long way away from the 6.17 ERA he had in 2021.

Johan Oviedo

Oviedo was acquired at the 2022 trade deadline from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for starting pitcher Jose Quintana, the Cardinals had been unsure exactly what Oviedo was and had been using him as a reliever. The Pirates saw a starter.

Oviedo earned a rotation spot coming out of camp after J.T. Brubaker was lost for the season and never looked back. In 32 starts and 177.2 innings he carried a 4.31 ERA but that doesn’t really tell the full story for Oviedo.

He gave up two earned runs or less 18 times and allowed one or less 15 times. Only four starting pitchers in MLB had more starts allowing one earned run or less, that's the Dr. Jekyll. The Mr. Hyde was giving up five or more earned runs seven times.

The fiery right hander dominated some starts with his high velocity that he carries deep into games and two excellent breaking pitches, including a 112-pitch complete game shutout against Kansas City. But he frequently really struggled with arm side command of the fastball, working way too often from behind in counts and leaving the fastball up in zone causing the pitch getting torched. His 4.2 BB/9 was tied for the third worst among qualified pitchers and led to laborious innings and high pitch counts early.

It can sometimes be hard for larger pitchers like Oviedo, who stands at 6’5” 245, to repeat their delivery. Part of the issue with his command was being able to find that release point.

The questions of Johan Oviedo having the upside to be a starter or being able to handle the workload were answered this year. The jury is still out on how far he can take his often-excellent traits or if his inconsistencies and shortcomings will weigh him down into a less prominent role.

Roansy Contreras

Where do you even start with what happened to Roansy Contreras? A pitcher the Pirates were expecting big things out of this year who just completely fell apart after a solid April.

All kinds of things contributed to this, but the once highly touted prospect just looked like a shell of himself. The fastball velocity was gone, the sharp breaking pitches didn’t have the same bite, his confidence was totally shot. He didn’t look any better with any added velocity coming out of the pen either.

A list of things that didn’t go wrong here might be shorter. He never made it back to MLB action after being sent all the way down to the FCL in July. Finishing with a 6.59 ERA

Perhaps the most concerning aspect is neither the Pirates, nor any of the outside facilities they were taking him to, seemed to be able to identify a root cause.

Manipulating his service time in 2022 cost them an option, being forced to use one again in 2023 leaves him with no options remaining and no way off of the MLB roster without being exposed to waivers, where he almost certainly will be claimed. Make no mistake, the team will trade him before it comes to that.

How he looks coming into camp and the first few weeks of the season could very well dictate his future with the organization, if he has one at all.

You can look no further than Mitch Keller as proof it can take time to establish yourself in this league. But with the team now moving into a window that they themselves hope to be seriously competitive in, do they really have the roster room and time to give a player with no options several years to figure it all out?

This one could very well warrant its own deep dive later in the off season.

Luis Ortiz

I, like everyone else, was blown away by the raw stuff he showed in his brief 2022 stint. There was a lot of work to be done, a project for sure. But I didn’t expect this showing and I don’t think the team did either. Ortiz was called up on May 9th to replace the injured Velasquez.

The upper end velocity and stuff just wasn’t there, the swing and miss vanished (6.13 K/9), the control wasn’t any better (4.98 BB/9) and the hard-hit rates were among the worst in the league with an average exit velocity of 92.4 MPH.

He finished with an ERA of 4.78 in 86 and two thirds' innings pitched, but that final line was propped up by a few good starts at the end with some rather ridiculous hard-hit luck.

On a positive note, his changeup, which was somewhat of a joke offering previously was, by the numbers, his best pitch this year. Opponents hit just .205 against it without a single extra base hit. It looked particularly good after his return from AAA in late August.

The team did feel that Ortiz wasn’t applying himself as well as he could, which played into his demotion on July 5, but I can’t help but wonder if they asked Ortiz to change too much. The team loves sliders and multiple Pirates pitchers saw increased slider usage this year. It worked with Velasquez until he got hurt but I’m not sure it was the right move with Ortiz. It may have affected his other pitches, I also question the need to make the change so early on in his MLB career, before you really know what he is at this level.

Quinn Priester

Like Ortiz and Burrows, Priester was a top 100 prospect headed into this year. He made his debut against Cleveland on July 17 going five and a third and giving up seven earned.

His next few starts didn’t go much better, and by mid-August after his start against the Mets in New York he had given up 29 earned runs in 28.1 innings pitched. He was optioned back to AAA August 15.

His primary offerings just weren’t good enough. Particularly the four-seam fastball, which he used mostly against left handers. It was flat, on the lower end of the velocity spectrum sitting around 92 MPH and he had a very bad tendency to leave the pitch up out over the plate. It got hammered accordingly, it simply wasn’t a major league offering.

He worked in AAA on his routine in-between starts and managed to add velocity, regularly hitting the mid 90s. His sinker was particularly effective in his two-hit, six-inning start in Cincinatti against the Reds on September 24.

It's reasonable to expect the Pirates to acquire two starting pitchers this offseason, just as they did last year. Like Ortiz and Contreras, he should be in the mix for either one of the last spots in the rotation or a long relief role.

Rich Hill

The Pirates signed Hill to a one year, $ 8 million contract this past off season and was one of the two free agent starting pitching acquisitions for the team along with Velasquez.

They got about as much out of Rich Hill as you would think could be reasonably asked of an arm that turned 43 by opening day. Hill had an ERA of 4.73 in 22 starts averaging comfortably over five innings per start for the Bucs. The highlight of his season undoubtedly being his 119 pitch seven inning effort against the New York Mets on June 9.

He wasn’t particularly good, but he wasn’t expected to be. He achieved no less and no more than what the team needed him to achieve on the field in his brief tenure.

They ended up paying about $5.4 million of the $8 million contract, as he was traded along with 1B/DH Ji-Man Choi to the San Diego Padres for SP Jackson Wolf, 1B Alfonso Rivas and 17-year-old OF Estuar Suero at the August 1st trade deadline.

Osvaldo Bido, Bailey Falter and Andre Jackson.

It wouldn’t be true to say that any of these guys were really starters, Falter got the closest to fitting the term in his time with the team and he went five innings or more just three times in his 10 Pirates appearances.

Starter, bulk guy, opener, long reliever, whatever you choose to call them, all together the team managed to get 134.2 innings out of the three combined. Filling a desperate need for bodies to get the Pirates through games.

All three managed to have middling success at times, but each got exposed for various reasons. Be it regression to the mean or issues going through the order more than once.

Bido intrigued the most here. He was quite good preventing barrels and limiting exit velocity. The swing and miss numbers were poor but there might be enough stuff there to get more chases, provided he locates. He even showed the ability to reach back and hit the upper 90s in his August 7 outing against the Atlanta Braves, topping out at 98. Although his fastball and sinker typically sat quite a bit lower than that.

There are higher expectations when it comes to some players, but the team doesn’t usually have a pecking order in mind when it comes to competitions for spots up for grabs in spring training. It’s pretty safe to say though that if any of these three are starting or being the ‘bulk guy’ over any significant stretch next season either the Pirates didn’t do enough in the off season, or something has gone wrong.