1-17-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)
The two most expensive commodities to acquire on the open market are power and pitching. Seeing as the Pirates will never find themselves in the bidding war for an Aaron Judge or a Jacob DeGrom type, they will need to develop most of this talent internally; with the keyword being most.
Unfortunately, this is a point that must be emphasized amongst those of us that talk and write about prospects. Otherwise, the rebuttal of no team can be built entirely on prospects, will immediately be echoed by detractors; who are ultimately screaming into a void. Obviously no one believes that a team can be made up of players from within one’s own farm system.
But, in the Pirates case, most of them eventually will have to.
Sure, there will be some free agent signings and trades to fill holes-or hopefully to make a playoff push. However, these will be the finishing touches, not the moves that set things in motion; or even speed up the process significantly in my opinion. That type of stuff happens when young players outperform projections sooner than expected, role players contribute consistently, rotations give their teams a chance day in and day out, bullpens gel together and/or regulars all perform at an above average level.
As far as the rotation is concerned,the Pirates have three pitchers-Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras and Rich Hill-who I believe can realistically give their team a chance more often than not. The rest are a bit of what I consider wildcards. JT Brubaker has shown the ability, but lacks the consistency, Vince Velasquez performed better as a reliever than a starter and Johan Oviedo is the victim of the dreaded small sample size; although he did perform well.
To me this means Pittsburgh needs to find more arms within the system to fill the current holes, and/or to be the patchwork if injuries, poor performance(s) or trades occur.
Here are the top candidates, at the moment.
1) Luis Ortiz
Many want Ortiz to be on the Major League Roster when the team heads north from Bradenton this Spring; however, most know that he more than likely will not be.
Immediately fans will jump to the Service Time Manipulation/Super 2 conclusion; still, I don’t know if this is a simple connection that can be made when you look into the underlying numbers.
In his first Major League start Ortiz had Pirates Fans sitting up in their seats as he mowed down the Reds-in the second game of a doubleheader on September 13th-in dominating fashion. Using his four seam fastball that topped out at over 100 mph and wipeout slider, he struck out 5 and allowed only one hit in 5.2 innings of work.
Over his next two starts Ortiz would continue to control the competition to the tune of 12 strikeouts, 4 hits and two earned runs over 9.2 innings.
At this point you might be wondering, What’s the Catch? Why won’t Ortiz be in the rotation to start the season?
Well, remember those underlying numbers? At the same time Ortiz was striking out 10.1 batters per 9 innings, he also had a walk rate 4.2 batters per 9; which finally caught up with him in his last start of the season, as he didn’t even make it out of the first inning against the Cardinals.
After allowing a leadoff double to Brandon Donovan, Ortiz proceeded to walk the bases loaded twice before giving up a grand slam to Corey Dickerson; with an RBI single by Albert Pujols mixed in between.
Sure, you could possibly chalk this all up to one bad start, but for a player that struggled with command/control at times in the Minors-and allowed 1.5 HR/9 in Double-A-this could become more of a regular occurrence. For reference, when compared to the qualified pitchers in MLB last season, Ortiz’s 1.5 HR/9 would come in as the 4th worst.
Obviously, this flaw is something that many pitchers have overcome in order to be successful; yet, I can’t say it’s something I would want a younger pitcher to deal with from the jump.
Now, I didn’t intend for this to be a piece about why Ortiz should start the season in Triple-A; it just sort of happened. Clearly this young man has a lot of positive traits that have gotten him this far, and resulted in quick rise from Altoona to Indianapolis to Pittsburgh. His 1.172 WHIP with the Curve was only second to Mike Burrows in the starting rotation, he has two above average offerings and he’s consistently added strength/endurance, in order to maintain velocity throughout his starts.
Worst case scenario, Ortiz becomes a shut-down bullpen arm; with a 100 mph fastball, and wipeout slider.
2) Carmen Mlodzinski
During last year’s off-season, Mlodzinski became one of the names mentioned as possibly getting the bump to Triple-A Indianapolis; even as I cautioned everyone to pump the brakes on the young man from South Carolina.
Once again this has nothing to do with not liking a player and/or trying to prove a point; it’s about honest assessments of players based on performance.
During the 2021 Minor League Baseball Season, Mlodzinski performed well inside the bandbox in Greensboro-3.93 ERA, 1.291 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 50.1 innings; but, unfortunately he was only able to make 14 starts due a shoulder injury. He did return to finish the Grasshopper’s season, get a cup of coffee with the Indians and appear in the Arizona Fall League; still, he unfortunately never looked as good as he did at the start of the year.
Then this past season-all in Altoona-Mlodzinski posted a 4.78 ERA and a 1.415 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 105.1 innings, while dealing with a shoulder injury once again.
Projected to start the season in Triple-A, he will have some pretty stiff competition for the starting rotation; including, each player listed, any Minor League signings and potentially a pitcher like Oviedo; who the Pirates could continue to stretch out into a full blown starter.
3) Quinn Priester
After missing pretty much the first two and half months of the season with an oblique injury, Priester made his way back to his original assignment in Altoona; but, not before being part of a combined no-hitter in Bradenton, and getting knocked around in his old stomping grounds in Greensboro.
Eventually-following a couple more starts to ramp up his pitch count-the former first round pick from Carey-Grove High School would settle in; and, end up having the type of year one would hope for from the top pitching prospect in the system.
Over 75.1 innings and 15 starts for the Curve, Priester posted a 2.87 ERA and a 1.195 WHIP with 75 strikeouts; including a 7 inning, 2 hit, and zero earned run performance in his next to last start in Altoona.
Ultimately he was promoted to Indianapolis for a quick cup of coffee-and two polar opposite starts-before getting in some extra work in the Arizona Fall League.
Now, onto what will happen in 2023.
Well, if I am being totally honest, I can’t see Priester being called upon in Pittsburgh unless there is a string of unforeseen injuries. This clearly doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. I just see them playing it slow with the young man; which will more than likely bring the service manipulation and Super 2 conversation(s) into play. Because, we can’t go one year without having that discussion.
4) Mike Burrows
With the presumptive ace of the Curve staff sidelined to begin the season, Burrows stepped right in; and, took over. Through his first 12 starts of the year he put up a 2.94 ERA and a 1.096 WHIP, while striking out 69 batters across 52 innings; earning a promotion to Indianapolis on June 16th.
Unfortunately this promotion did not go smoothly for Burrows as he struggled his way to a 5.31 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP with 42 strikeouts in 42.1 innings; ultimately ending up on the IL after battling a sore shoulder, that began to bother him only a month after he arrived in the Circle City.
Added to the 40-Man to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft back in November, Burrows is looking to put together his first healthy season in the past two years.
Back in 2021 he made just 13 starts for Greensboro, although he was extremely dominant, as evidenced by the 2.20 ERA and 0.898 WHIP; however, he also dealt with an oblique injury.
If he does stay healthy, he is probably third in line behind Oviedo and Ortiz for a shot at the starting rotation in Pittsburgh; but, things could always change.
5) Kyle Nicolas
Acquired as part of Jacob Stallings Trade back at the end of November 2021, Nicolas spent the entire season with the Curve; making 22 starts and 24 total appearances. Like nearly every player on this list Nicolas spent some time on the IL; with his reasoning also being shoulder injury.
At the point he went on the IL, his ERA sat at 3.98, his WHIP was a solid 1.27 and he had 54 strikeouts in 40.2 innings. Upon his return, Nicolas picked up right where he left off, ending the year with a 3.97 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP and 101 strikeouts in 90.2 innings.
Due to him coming over in such a big trade, it’s surprising that he often flies under the radar. When most people discuss who could make their debut in the rotation, Nicolas’ name rarely comes up; and, for some reason that makes me think he could be the one who arrives before the more familiar names.
Honorable Mention: Cody Bolton
Bolton is the one player on this list that spent the entire season in Triple-A, but it never felt like he was even close to being promoted to Pittsburgh; even though he didn’t really do anything wrong, and pitched in every role he was asked to.
One game he would be a starter, the next he was used in long relief, then he would be an opener and after that he would be set-up man. In one game he was even asked to be the closer.
In the end he had a 3.09 ERA, a 1.282 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 75.2 innings to show for his hard work in flexibility; both being reasons why I was surprised he was protected for and/or selected in the Rule 5 Draft.
All arms on deck!
Since arriving as the Pirates GM in November 2019, this is the first time that Ben Cherington and Company have really had this much pitching depth so close to the Majors; which is kind of exciting.
Beyond this initial excitement, is a general curiosity/interest surround how and when each of these arms will deployed.