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Projecting Pirates starting rotation

Mitch Keller was named the Opening Day starter vs. Reds.

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Pirates have fewer question marks throughout the roster than in previous years.

While backup catcher, one or two utility jobs, and a few bullpen spots remain up for grabs, the starting nine can nearly be written in ink for Opening Day.

The same applies to the starting rotation. Barring spring injuries, the Pirates will deploy five - possibly even six - pitchers to begin the 2023 season.

Mitch Keller

Mitch Keller molded into a reliable pitcher down the stretch last year, earning the nod Wednesday as the Pirates' Opening Day starter. He will start March 30 in Cincinnati against the Reds. The first two months of the season will be a tall tale sign of how Keller adapts to being the Bucs' No. 1 pitcher. Are his struggles behind him? He pitched a career-high 159 innings in 2022, posting a 3.91 ERA in 31 appearances (29 starts).

After recording ERAs of 6.62 and 5.19 in April and May, respectively, Keller registered a 4.10 in June, 2.61 in July, and a 4.70 August ERA. His best month was September, totaling a 1.80 ERA and 1.10 WHIP Keller has allowed five runs in 11 spring starts thus far through four starts, striking out 13 and recording a 1.09 WHIP.

Roansy Contreras

Contreras is the most promising youngster - first or second-year pitcher - in the Bucs’ big-league rotation. The 23-year-old pitched 95 innings in 21 appearances (18 starts), striking out 86 batters and totaling a 1.27 WHIP last season. He ranked in the 85th percentile in fastball spin and 82nd in both chase rate and curve spin, according to Baseball Savant.

He pitched 2 ⅓ scoreless innings Tuesday night for team Dominican Republic in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Contreras issues no walks and struck out four in the DR’s 10-0 win over Israel.

Rich Hill

Yes, he’s 43 years old. But, he can still pitch at a high level. Rich Hill pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 2022, registering a 4.27 ERA in 26 starts spanning 124.1 innings. His big looping curveball ranks in the 74th percentile in curve spin while his best category is hard hit percentage (79th). He is also known for pitching a perfect game into the 8th inning at PNC Park in 2017 and a no-hitter into extras before Josh Harrison walked it off.

Signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, Hill is a veteran lefty who transformed his career with the Oakland A’s in 2016 after struggling and pitching in the bullpen. Whether Hill will be around near the end of 2023 remains to be seen - largely by the team’s performance - but employing the third or fourth-level starter will help younger pitchers grow both on and off the mound. The pitch clock will speed up his workflow and could reversely be assisted by the prospects’ history using the clock.

JT Brubaker

While Mitch Keller was named as the Opening Day starter Wednesday, JT Brubaker owned the honor entering the 2022 season. Brubaker struck out 147 and compiled a 1.47 WHIP in 144 total innings, finishing the year 3-12 overall. He pitched a fantastic April - 2.63 ERA in five starts - but failed to produce remotely similar results after, including a 6.57 ERA in July and 9.47 in August. He was shut down with right arm inflammation to begin September.

following his spring outing against the Philadelphia Phillies, Brubaker is throwing his slider at a 50% whiff rate and is garnering strong swing-and-miss numbers. Brubaker started Wednesday’s games against Toronto, as fours were wild… allowing four runs on four hits in 4.1 innings. Look for Brubaker to once again make a bulk of starts in 2023.

Vince Velasquez/Johan Oviedo

Velasquez, 30, signed a one-year deal after starting nine of 27 appearances for the Chicago White Sox. In 75.1 total innings, Velasquez compiled a 3-3 record and struck out 69 batters. His 1.23 WHIP and .235 opponent average were enhanced when he moved to the bullpen. Also a candidate to be a long reliever at some point, the Pirates are giving Velasquez the chance to earn a rotation spot against a prime candidate like Johan Oviedo. He has allowed one run on two hits in five innings this spring.

Acquired at the trade deadline from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Jose Quintana deal, Oviedo allowed 11 earned runs in 30.2 innings (3.23 ERA) in seven Pirates starts. A young flamethrower, 25, who also walked 16 batters, contributing to a 1.27 WHIP, he totaled the best opponent batting average (.198) of any rate compared to the previous two seasons.

Eventually, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows and others will factor into rotation decision-making. The Pirates have solid depth in the starting rotation with young arms on the way. Derek Shelton could deploy a six-man rotation in the early going to ease his pitchers into action past Spring Training and allow for competition in regular season games. The paths Keller and Contreras take in 2023 pave the way for how the Pirates will fair because, well, effective starting pitching is the backbone for winning.