The Pirates Rotation – Who’s in Play? What Decisions Need Made?

12-15-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

It might be early for this. I mean it’s the middle of December so we have no way of knowing entirely what this list will look like by Spring Training. That said, I think there is value in understanding not only the player names, but also the stage of career each is in.

For instance, if all things are equal and the team has a choice to option a player to keep one who doesn’t have any, I like to think understanding this often under-advertised mechanism can help make sense of it.

So today, let’s break down who’s in play, their special circumstances, and finally make a way too early prediction of how this thing might look both at the beginning and even farther out, how it might look at the end.

It’s very possible, a member or two of this list is simply DFA’d. That’s how muddy this thing could get. A guy who I could 100% see being DFA’d, could also make the opening day rotation.

Roansy Contreras – 1 Option – FA 2029

All of his rookie year and COVID related herk and jerk stuff out of the way, Roansy is poised to simply be a Major League starting pitcher this year. When you get to the point Contreras has reached, having 1 option left hardly matters, unless he struggles, and mightily at that. The likelihood that he starts in the rotation and never sees a minor league field outside a rehab assignment again is very high.

Mitch Keller – 1 Option – FA 2026

Finally, after years of ups and downs, consternation, blow up innings sandwiched by brilliance, Mitch Keller looks to have found his stride. There is literally no more solid a member of this rotation.

JT Brubaker – 2 Options – FA 2026

Can this be the year JT puts together a complete season? For each of the past 3 seasons JT has gone through stretches where he was the best starter on the staff, problem is there’s always a but. But, he gave up too many homeruns and ran out of steam. But, his team played awful defense behind him and he struggled to overcome it. You could do this all day, point is, JT is still a question mark and at 29 years old, you have to figure upside has to turn into reality right now, or he takes his game to the bullpen. He’s every bit an MLB pitcher, that much is clear.

Vince Velasquez – N/A – FA 2024

Experienced free agent brought in on a one year deal who has bounced from rotation to bullpen and back again for half a decade at multiple stops along the way. Part of the Pirates sales pitch to sign a guy like this is to offer a real shot at the rotation, and the same was done with Jose Quintana last year and Tyler Anderson the year prior.

Bryse Wilson – 0 Options – FA 2027

When I talk about a player who could quite literally start in the rotation or be DFA’d, Wilson is probably example number 1. With no options but 4 years of team control remaining, the Pirates may want to at least get some innings out of him before moving on. He could be spared by a bullpen assignment, or get a shot at the rotation, but if they chose to DFA him and see if he clears waivers so they could store him in AAA, I wouldn’t be shocked.

Zach Thompson – 3 Options – FA 2028

Zach has options, bullpen experience, rotation experience and a big frame that can eat innings. When building a team, I can’t begin to illustrate how important it is to have guys like this. Spot starts, injury replacements, bullpen veteran, all these things with one player you can yo-yo as much as you need, and he still isn’t even in arbitration. He’s also super old to be in this position, at 29 and only a little over a year of service time, his role could be damn near anything, but zero chance he’s DFA’d. There’s value in just his flexibility.

Johan Oviedo – 1 Option – FA ??

Have to leave his FA year with question marks, because how he’s deployed this season will help write that story. Johan started for the Cards, then transitioned to the bullpen and back to starter with the Pirates. By the end of the season he put some nice outings on tape sprinkled around some rough ones. A shot in Spring seems likely, but it certainly isn’t guaranteed.

Luis Ortiz – 3 Options – FA ??

Luis debuted in 2022, and when you talk about someone bursting on the scene, yeah, it doesn’t get much more bursty if that’s a word (it isn’t) than Ortiz. It was insane to watch, and obviously filled fans heads with visions of the Pirates finally being that team who accidentally found a star pitcher. That might all wind up being true, but anyone who covers prospects will tell you that stretch of games wasn’t reflective of his minor league performance. His last outing against St. Louis showed that he still has some work to do, but the ceiling and talent level is simply off the charts with him. Can’t rule him out for winning a spot, but make no mistake, he has a hill to climb.

Mike Burrows – 3 Options – FA ??

If you follow my stuff, you know I’ve liked Mike Burrows since 2020, but last year he really emerged in AA Altoona. His callup to AAA Indy didn’t go nearly as well. Not that he looked overmatched, but there is still a jump in talent between those levels and things that worked in AA, might not in AAA. He needs more time, but he’s on this list because at some point, he’ll get his shot this year, even if it’s just to get his feet wet.

Cody Bolton –

You can’t list options or FA dates for guys who haven’t debuted or even been added to the 40-man. Basically, the clock hasn’t started yet. Cody is 24 years old, and after surviving the Rule 5 draft the Pirates would be wise to have him answer questions this year. Of all the minor league starters who haven’t made it to MLB yet, he could very well be the first one to get a crack, and bullpen isn’t out of the question, but Bolton has something.

Quinn Priester –

I’m hardly breaking news telling you the Pirates 2019 number one pick should make the league this year. A mature pitch mix, an ability to learn quickly and an athletic frame with an easy delivery, Quinn really is a nice prospect. No chance he starts out of Spring, but I wouldn’t spit out my coffee if he looked like one of their 5 best in Bradenton.

Wei-Chieh Huang – 2 Options – FA ??

Huang was selected by the Pirates in the MiLB portion of the Rule 5 draft. Relatively rare in so far as he has some actual MLB experience with Texas back in 2019. He’s 29 years old, and provides another under the radar guy with starter experience the team could bounce up and down if they choose to make room on the 40-man for him and his performance dictates it.

Opening Day Rotation Projection

Before we get into this, I just want to reinforce, it’s December 15th. The Pirates certainly might not be done shuffling this mix. But I like having an early look if only to help me recognize the moving parts. And yes, I’m going to put them in the order I see them. This is also what I think the Pirates might do, I would already have a lefty here for instance.

Mitch Keller
Roansy Contreras
JT Brubaker
Vince Velasquez
Johan Oviedo

I ultimately think the variable here is Wilson. If he looks like he did last Spring, out of shape with velo down, he’ll lose out to Oviedo. If he looks really good, and survives the 40-man in the first place to get there, he’ll send Oviedo to AAA, at least to start.

End of the Year Rotation

This is total BS ok. Like I can’t even tell you we’re done seeing moves before the season, let alone pretend I know how the entire season plays out. But I can tell you if I’m the Pirates front office, this is how I’d LOVE for it to turn out.

Mitch Keller
Roansy Contreras
Mike Burrows
Luis Ortiz
Quinn Priester

Now if you noticed this would require a bunch of stuff to happen. JT probably in the pen, Oviedo as well. Velasquez of course either in the pen or moved. Wilson and Thompson doing something somewhere.

And of course, these kids have to perform.

But, if the rotation looks like this by the end of 2023, man it’s hard to see many complaints about how the rotation has shaped up.

We can all be and most probably are a bit jaded about the Velasquez signing, but overall, I really like where this rotation is headed.

If they nail this, even though we hate the not spending aspect of what this team has done, the team will improve dramatically. Pitching is still king in MLB, and you’d have to be blind to not see how this is far different from how it looked and the options they had just a year ago.

Credit where due, the pitching staff is headed in the right direction.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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