Examining Potential Future Aces For The Pittsburgh Pirates

Sep 25, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Mitch Keller (23) throws a pitch during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Mitch Keller (23) throws a pitch during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /
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Every good team has an ace pitcher. In a few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates could be back in contention with one of these pitchers leading their rotation.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates went to three straight postseason in 2013 to 2015, you could name a few guys who were considered the ace starting pitcher of the staff. In 2013 it was A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. In 2014 you could say it was Edinson Volquez. In 2015, it was a trio that included Burnett, Liriano and Gerrit Cole. The Pirates right now have a handful of notable pitching prospects who in a few years could be the ace of their next playoff ready core. But out of them, who might be the team’s next ace?

Some might point out former prospect Mitch Keller. Keller, after all, has the stuff to be an ace level pitcher. When he’s healthy, the right hander can run his fastball into the upper-90s. Usually, he averages out at 94-96 MPH, but has touched 98 MPH before.

He also has above average spin on his four-seamer, his slider and curveball. He also throws a change up at times, but it’s still a pitch he’s been working on. Both his fastball and curveball have future 55 grades and his slider has a future 60 grade. Command wise, he has a 55 current and 60 future grade. His change up has the lowest grade at just 45, but like I said earlier, it’s one that could rise.

However, so far, Keller hasn’t put up ace-like numbers. In 2019, Keller had a 7.13 ERA, but got extremely unlucky with a .475 batting average on balls in play, 3.19 FIP, 3.47 xFIP, 3.78 SIERA, while striking out 28.6% of the batters he faced and walking just 7%. In terms of exit velocity and hard hit rate, he was well above average at 87.6 MPH and 35.3%.

This past season, Keller had a 2.19 ERA, but an extremely lucky .104 BABIP, 6.75 FIP, 6.57 xFIP and 6.94 SIERA. He also walked more batters than he struck out with a 16/18 K/BB ratio. Now granted, this is in a sample size of less than 75 innings of work. Keller has also done very well at Triple-A. In 2019, he ranked top 5 in ERA, FIP, xFIP, strikeout rate and HR/9.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have two pitchers from the first-round of the 2019 draft that could also be their future ace. The first of which is the 18th pick in the draft, Quinn Priester. Drafted out of Cary-Grove High School, Priester was one of the best high school arms in the draft.

Priester was ranked as the 3rd best pitcher available in 2019’s draft by FanGraphs, and carries an arsenal of weapons. Priester has two fastballs, a four-seamer and two-seamer. Though his four seamer sits in the 91-95 MPH range, his two-seamer is considered to have some good movement. He also carries a curveball and change-up, both of which have a future 55 grade. He also seems to do well with controlling his pitches with a future 55 command grade.

In 2019, Priester tossed a total of 36.2 innings between Rookie-Ball and Low-A ball. Impressively, he only allowed a single home run. Most of his innings, 32.2 to be exact, came from Rookie-Ball where he had struck out 37 batters, allowed 10 free passes and 11 earned runs.

The other 2019 draft prospect is Brennan Malone. He was selected 33rd overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and shipped to the Bucs in the Starling Marte deal. Like Priester, Malone was another top ranked high school arm, and ranked as the 23rd best player available. He only got drafted as late as he did because of his signing bonus demands.

What makes Malone a fantastic ace-candidate is his arsenal of pitches. Malone throws a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up. All four are considered, at the very least, average. Malone’s fastball is given a future grade of 60 while his breaking pitches come in with future-55 grades. His change-up comes in at 50 and while it might not be above average, it doesn’t have to be the best off-speed pitch ever considering how effective his other three offerings are. Though he might not be a control artist, FanGraphs still gives his command a future 50 grade, and MLB Pipeline gives him a 50 control grade, which is still average.

Recently, I talked about how much of an impact Tahnaj Thomas could have in the next few years. Despite FanGraphs being the only highly regarded prospect source to rank Thomas in the top 100, at 72, the hard throwing right hander should not be slept on. Plus, FanGraphs has one of the highest success rates in terms of their prospect lists. Thomas’ has an elite-level fastball that can reach into the triple-digits. It has a 70 future grade.

To go along with it, he has a breaking pitch some have identified as a slider and others have identified as a curveball. But all sources agree that it’s a very good pitch with high swing-and-miss stuff. He’s also developing a change-up that is seen as a future 50-grade pitch, giving him three or four decent pitches. Though he struggled with control early in his career, he’s progressively gotten better with a 18.2% walk rate in 2017, 12.5% rate in 2018 and then to a rate of just 7% in 2019.

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Aside from these four, the Pittsburgh Pirates still have a handful of other potential arms that could make a run for the claim of ace pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs drafted Carmen Mlodzinski in the first-round of the 2020 draft for a reason. Logan Hofmann was taken with their 5th round pick, but don’t be mistaken. In college in 2020, he pitched 28 innings, allowing no earned runs in 4 starts, while having an insane 38/5 K/BB ratio.

Current Pirate starter Joe Musgrove could also develop into an ace. He’s shown improvement in each of the three seasons he has been with the Bucs. The only thing is that he’s controlled through 2022. If the Bucs are able to lock down a potential extension with the right-hander, then I could see Big Joe making the run at being the team’s ace.