The Future of the Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Pitching

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have many different young pitchers in their system. So what does the future hold for their starting five?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have long been able to recognize talented starting pitching. They were the team to draft Tyler Glasnow and Gerrit Cole, and acquire struggling veterans who they were able to turn around in A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez, and Francisco Liriano. However, development wise, they’ve struggled.

With a complete revamp of the front office and MLB coaching staff, those development issues that they have faced in the past may be behind them now. So what does the future hold for the starting pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Right now, the only long term pitcher in the Pirates rotation that isn’t a rookie is Joe Musgrove. Musgrove was acquired by the Pirates in the Cole deal. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, the right hander has been hurt by the Pirates’ poor defense.

In 285.2 innings, Musgrove might have a 4.28 ERA, but a 3.72 FIP, and has put up a sub-4 DRA in the past two seasons (3.43 in 2018, 3.59 in 2019). He has also put up a strong 44.9% ground ball rate, and has allowed home runs at a 1.0 per 9 rate. Although not a big strikeout pitcher with a 21.3% strikeout rate, he posted a 5.1% walk percentage in the past two years. If there is a 2020 season, it will be his age 27 season. Big Joe is controlled through the 2022 season and primed to breakout in 2020.

Another potential long term pitcher, if he can stay healthy, is Jameson Taillon. Now a two-time Tommy John Surgery victim, Taillon looked to turn a corner in 2018. In his age 26-season, the former top prospect put up a 3.20 ERA, 3.46 FIP and 1.17 WHIP in 191 innings. He also had a 3.77 SIERA and 3.41 DRA. Home runs weren’t that big of an issue with a 0.9 HR/9 rate and 46.2% groundball rate. He also struck out 22.8% of the batters he faced and walked them at a 5.9% rate.

Taillon’s injury luck is awful. Not only is he a two-time Tommy John victim, but also underwent treatment in 2017 for testicular cancer. He just can’t catch a break. Like Musgrove, Taillon is controlled through 2022. If he can stay healthy, Taillon could be a very strong starting pitcher. After all, he had a 3.9 fWAR in 2018.

One of the Pittsburgh Pirates best prospects, Mitch Keller, is MLB ready, and showed tons of promise last season. In 48 innings, despite Keller’s 7.13 ERA, he was extremely unlucky with a .475 batting average on balls in play, the highest in MLB history with at least 40 innings pitched. This is reflected in his FIP (3.19) SIERA (3.78), and xFIP (3.47). Keller has above average grades for his fastball (55 grade), curveball (55 grade) and slider (60 grade) per FanGraphs, and also has a change up that could overall be an average pitch. Still, three above average pitches plus an overall average fourth pitch is very good. Keller also was very good at Triple-A. His ERA (3.56), FIP (3.60), xFIP (3.87), WHIP (1.24), strikeout rate (28.2%) and HR/9 (0.78) all were top 5 (min. 100 innings) and  FIP, xFIP, and strikeout rate all leading the league.

Past Keller, the Pittsburgh Pirates have many other top prospects, but none as near MLB ready as the right hander. The next top prospect they have is Tahnaj Thomas. Thomas was acquired by the Pirates from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff. Since coming over to the Pirates’ organization, he has become one of the more under the radar prospects in all of baseball.

Last year with short-season Bristol, Thomas pitched in 48.1 innings, allowing a 3.17 ERA, 3.67 FIP and 1.11 WHIP. His FIP should go down as his xFIP was 3.49. Thomas registered an outstanding 29.5% strikeout rate, while walking 7% of the batters he faced. He was also pretty solid at suppressing the long ball with a 0.93 HR/9 and 40.5 groundball rate.

Thomas has an extremely strong fastball with a 60 current/70 future grade per FanGraphs. His fastball also has a future grade at 60 and a change up with a future grade of 50. He is only 20-years-old, so he has plenty of time to develop his pitches even more. Thomas currently ranks as the 78th best prospect in baseball per FanGraphs, ranking above notable names like Kyle Wright (95) and Matthew Liberatore (94).

The Pirates also have two 2019 first round picks in their system. The first of which was their own pick, Quinn Priester. The right-hander was selected with the 18th pick in the draft last year. Priester showed immense talent in the 36.2 innings he pitched between Rookie and Low-A ball. Through 36.2 innings, Preister allowed a 3.19 ERA, 2.83 FIP and 1.255 WHIP. Priester struck out 41 of the 159 batters he faced while walking only 14. He also allowed just 1 ball to leave the field. Still just 19-years-old, Preister has above average future grades for his fastball (60), curveball (55) and change up (55).

The other 1st round pick the Pirates have in their system from 2019 is Brennan Malone. Acquired in the Starling Marte trade, Malone didn’t get the same results as Priester did in rokkie ball, but it was a very small sample size of 8 innings, in seven games, three of which were starts.

Regardless of his results, the Diamondbacks are also very good at recognizing talent, and didn’t select Malone with the 33rd overall pick for no reason. The 19-year-old uses three pitches, including a fastball, slider, curveball, and change up. Three of them have above average future grades with his fastball having a 60, and his slider and curve coming in at 55, while his change-up still gets an average grade of 50. Malone having four average or better grades at 19 is very promising seeing as it’s very possible he could either improve one of the pitches to be elite, or improve his change-up to make 4 above average pitches. Currently, FanGraphs places him as the team’s 8th best prospect.

These are the highest ranking prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, but not the only prospects. They have a few high ceiling guys like Santiago Florez and Travis MacGregor, and future back end of the rotation or swingman types in JT Brubaker and Steven Jennings.

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Right now, all of these pitchers are currently in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. But that could soon expand to include a handful more talented pitchers. During the 2020 draft, the Pirates added University of South Carolina pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski with the 31st overall pick in the draft, high schooler Jared Jones with the 44th pick, and what I felt was one of the most underrated selections of the entire draft, Logan Hofmann with their final pick.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have many options for the long run in terms of starting pitching. Not only do they have a handful of pitchers that could be rotation anchors, but they also have plenty of depth for the rotation. Overall, the future looks bright for the Pirates’ future in terms of the starting rotation.

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