Let’s Talk Pirates 2021 Starting Rotation

Mitch Keller

I know, I know, it’s incredibly early for this, but I believe we can do this anyway. Couple reasons, first I feel fairly confident that if they bring in a starter, it won’t be a better option than what is currently here, and on top of that I don’t see the Pirates making a whole lot of moves this off-season to the starting pitching.

Now before I begin, I know this isn’t what many want to hear, and I’ll be honest I think they could go get someone that would really help for even a short two year contract close to what they would pay Archer (I’ll get to that in a minute) and if nothing else come out of it with a nice piece to flip for prospects.

Where to start? OK, Archer, he is as good as gone. No matter how many attention seeking radio hosts say they think it’s a good idea, no matter how nice a guy he is, no matter how much money Ben Cherington thinks he is ok spending, this is not a good risk. I’m not going to repeat myself on this much more but this just isn’t going to happen.

So let’s talk about who I do believe will be here.

Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller and Jameson Taillon. Additional options would be Cody Ponce, JT Brubaker and Clay Holmes.

This is with me, right now, deciding for the Pirates that Trevor Williams isn’t part of this picture. This also makes Cody Bolton start in AAA (which I think is a no brainer). This also supposes that Joe Musgrove doesn’t get dealt.

Now before I get into why I picked who I did, let’s start with why I don’t think Big Joe gets dealt. I’d call it a hunch, but an educated hunch. Listening to comments from Derek Shelton and Ben Cherington during the week I picked up on both of them calling out Joe as a positive thing to build on in 2020 with his strong finish. Of course this could just be complimentary stuff about a guy you’re trying to sell, but to paint it as a reason to look forward to 2021 and then turn around and move him, well, let’s just say I’d like to think neither of these guys are that bad at PR, but we’ve certainly seen worse.

So, of course I could be dead wrong about Joe. But being where we are in the off season let’s go with it.

Chad Kuhl worked his way through the shortened season and after a blister setback and scheduled ramp down finally got himself stretched out to 7 innings and over 100 pitches. Tommy John is a process to recover from and I think Chad came through it fine, he showed he still has the velocity and his control with his 3 and 4 pitches make him extremely formidable if he stays on track.

Mitch Keller is quite honestly the Pirates great youth hope on the mound. This is the closest thing to a lock the Bucs have to be tossing meaningful games in September some day soon. He showed us why after returning from his own injury this year and something drastic would have to happen for him to not start.

Steven Brault has arguably been the best starter in a Pirates uniform the past two seasons. Adding length and an ability to get through the lineup more than twice has been his greatest weakness beside occasional bouts of his fastball tailing a foot outside to righties. But for the most part Steven has really been a great innings eater and extra credit for being a left hander, so badly needed in PNC and so often neglected. This season Steven should go in having to have his job taken rather than doing the taking as he has the past two campaigns.

My last pick is Jameson Taillon and this one is a bit creative. First, no the Pirates aren’t interested in making Jamo the closer or moving him to the bullpen, but we just watched what a player coming back from Tommy John can look like and this is Jameson’s second. I’m not a doctor and I’ve seen the same videos you have but I saw similar for Chad Kuhl and he was slow walked into pitching like nothing I’ve ever seen. If they handle Jameson in the same way I could very easily see him being part of a piggy back situation not unlike what the Pirates did last year with JT Brubaker and he would be my selection again.

Now the biggest problem I have with that is the roster isn’t going to sit at 28 this season and almost more importantly the National League is leaning toward not returning the DH. That means the Pirates can’t short their bench in order to stockpile relievers, and they may not be able to afford to keep a guy in the “bullpen” who only pitches once every five days.

Another way to look at it is the Brubaker himself probably earned a good look in Spring to land himself a spot in the rotation.

Injuries happen, nobody knows that more than Pirates fans so imagine having Brubaker, Ponce, Bolton and Holmes in reserves.

This isn’t a bad starting rotation. Don’t get me wrong it’d look better with Trevor Bauer in for Joe, but this is Pittsburgh, I’m not going to waste my breath. When you add up all the parts it could be pretty steady, certainly good enough to hang with an NL Central that promises to continue taking steps backward next season.

When you look at that potential, you could make an argument that they really should trade one of them. The Bucs need the prospects and Musgrove makes a hell of a lot of sense. I’m not saying he’s going to return a boatload but he’d bring a nice prospect, hell maybe he even returns a nice bullpen piece.

And of all those pitchers, can you argue that Trevor Williams should be above them? I really can’t. I’ve been asked can’t the Pirates get something for Williams? I guess it’s possible, but if they offer him a tender and go to arbitration they could move him, that said, I just told you I can’t find a spot for him on the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 19-41 Pittsburgh Pirates. I’d non-tender him, it solves a bit of a 40-man issue and removes the temptation to make a bad decision based on a decent Spring.

I’m not trying to sell you on this being a rock solid rotation. What I am trying to say is, there is no way this club pays for a pitcher better than 6 of the 8 I mentioned.

Ben Cherington already mentioned the Pirates like most teams who have a whole lot more money going out currently will look to tighten the belt. Now I’m not sure how he thought that would be received but I can say the savings will come without additional dumps. Holland, Archer and Kela alone constitute 13.725 Million and even with arbitration for far more players than you’d like they will still have a lower payroll. For instance if Musgrove gets moved it won’t be a dump per se, after arbitration he will most likely end up with a salary in the high 3’s or low 4’s. Hardly worth getting the calculator out.

If there is a big trade it will be Bell or Moran (but not both), Frazier or Gonzalez (but not both) with a very unlikely outcome of finding a buyer for Polanco.

I’m not one of those guys who is going to try to sell you on the best free agent possible could be Jameson Taillon, but sometimes that is very much so the case. If he is a real MLB starting pitcher by mid-season that is one hell of a pick up.

I feel like I need to go overboard telling you I don’t think this is a “winning” ballclub in 2021, but I do think it starts to trend the right direction. And starting pitching is where it starts. I’ll also add if they don’t move a pitcher they need to extend one. Almost all these guys are 2 years away from walking away, if they want to keep a couple to have a steady platform for Bolton, and some of the younger prospects to land when the time comes, it’d be best if we weren’t staring at Keller, Brubaker and an abyss. They can always move them later if they so choose but I’d be comfortable extending Taillon (if he looks strong), Musgrove, Kuhl or Brault to start creating some stability, while we’re at it, Keller too. I wouldn’t lock them all up, this isn’t the 1991 Braves, but two or three leaves room for Brubaker to evolve and youngsters to get there but not be counted on as the savior.

Rebuilds start and finish with pitching, I truly believe that, when you have it, you have a chance. When you don’t you might as well call it what many referred to this season as, a tank.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Pirates 2021 Starting Rotation

  1. Gary, having read your entire article, I think without a doubt that you are spot on and couldn’t have expressed your thoughts, concerns, and recommendations any better than this. I couldn’t help but think, too, that the Pirates need to take a solid look at some of the “high hopes” hitters/fielders who haven’t been so far and some of the infielders who are in that “flip a coin” category in order to strike a balance in establishing the best offensive and defensive consistency. Just as Williams is an uncertainty pitching wise, I am beginning to think the Pirate brain trust needs to take a long, hard look at players such as Bell, Polanco, and Moran to see if any of these three might be up for trade consideration although Polanco is less likely because of the financial obligation. Perhaps I am somewhat biased, but I am hoping that Cole Tucker can play a key role in helping the Pirates develop into the team all of us have been hoping for. Once again, thanks for such an insightful article.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Ralph I appreciate that. You’re exactly right, the club isn’t done evaluating the offense and defense. I get the sense they do like Tucker but I’ll say he’s not taking to OF naturally, I’d hope they really spend some time instructing him. The bat needs work but it’s easy to forget this guy has only had two partial seasons. Good stuff.


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