Who Could Be In The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starting Rotation If They Trade Their Veteran Pitchers?

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MAY 01: Jameson Taillon #50 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 01, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MAY 01: Jameson Taillon #50 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 01, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have gotten some trade attention for their veteran starters. If they trade them, who could be in the Pirates’ rotation next season?

The Pittsburgh Pirates could trade two of their veteran starters this offseason. Joe Musgrove is easily one, if not the most valuable starter available on the trade market and in general. Another starter who’s gotten some attention on the trade market is lefty Steven Brault who’s coming off a career-best season in 2020. The two starters have seen a decent amount of time in the Bucs’ starting rotation the past couple of seasons so if they are traded, who are some pitchers we could see starting games for the team in 2021?

Mitch Keller is coming off two extremely odd seasons to start his career. Somehow, he managed a 2.91 ERA despite walking more batters than he struck out (16/18 ratio) mainly due to an absurdly low .104 batting average on balls in play during 2020. The thing is, Keller had essentially the complete opposite season in 2019. He had a 7.13 ERA while posting a strong 4.06 K/BB ratio, a HR/9 of just 1.13, and great ERA estimators. The only reason he struggled with his ERA was because of a .475 BABip.

Keller has only thrown 69.2 innings throughout his short career. He’ll definitely get another shot to prove himself after consistently ranking as a top 20 prospect and showing a great deal of potential in 2019. Plus 2021 will only be his age 25 season.

Another starter we might see return to the Pirates in 2021 is Jameson Taillon. The talented right-hander is returning from his second Tommy John surgery. When Taillon last pitched a decent amount of innings, he pitched 191 innings to the tune of a 3.20 ERA, 3.46 FIP and 1.178 WHIP. He also had a solid 3.77 SIERA, 3.58 xFIP, and .94 HR/9. He’s on track to return healthy in 2021 and it would be great to see if Oscar Marin can unlock his full potential if he can stay healthy. While Taillon’s name has been brought up in trade rumors recently, it seems that unless a team blows the Bucs away with an offer, he’ll be staying put for now.

Chad Kuhl came back from his own Tommy John surgery in 2020. Kuhl was one of the Pirates’ regular starters from mid-2016 up through mid-2018 but was forced to undergo the dreaded surgery that caused him to miss all of 2019.

Kuhl and Brault piggybacked starts throughout 2020. In his return, Kuhl pitched to the tune of a 4.27 ERA, 5.48 FIP, and 1.36 WHIP through 46.1 innings of work. Kuhl’s biggest issue was walking as he walked 14.2% of all the batters he faced. Kuhl wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher before surgery and that continued in 2020 with a K% of 22.3%, however, that was a career-high mark.

Kuhl still showed he has a great curveball. He may also function best as an opener or bullpen arm. Last year, opponents could only manage a .583 OPS against the right-hander the first time they faced him, but a .880 OPS the second time they stepped to the plate.

For now, J.T. Brubaker will likely start the year out in the rotation. Brubaker was one of the team’s most interesting prospects entering 2020 and he looked outstanding out of the bullpen striking out 7 of the 20 batters he faced, but was moved to the rotation when the Pirates suffered injuries to their rotation. He didn’t perform as well out of the rotation with a 5.53 ERA, 4.37 FIP, and 1.42 WHIP.

Brubaker still was above average in hard-hit rate, ranking in the top 75th percentile, and exit velocity, ranking in the top 71st percentile. Combined with a strong 48.4% groundball rate, he could put up better numbers out of the rotation in 2021. He also showed some potential throughout the minors as he pitched well at Triple-A. While he may eventually end up in the pen, he’ll likely start the year out as one of the Bucs’ starters.

Like Brubaker, Cody Ponce was another interesting Bucs’ prospect going into the 2020 season. Ponce, who was acquired by the Pirates for Jordan Lyles from the Milwaukee Brewers, has essentially filled every role imaginable throughout the minors. He was originally drafted as a starter, was moved to the pen, and then back to the rotation after his trade to Pittsburgh.

Ponce pitched just 17 innings for the Pirates and while he only gave up 6 earned runs for a 3.18 ERA, he surrendered 5 long balls, only striking out 12 and walking 6. Though he may not have put up great overall numbers, this was in a small sample size over five games, three of which were starts. Ponce has a 60-grade four-seam fastball and cutter. Last season, he ranked in the top 95th percentile of fastball spin rate. Both his four seamer and cutter had an RPM over 2500. His curveball has an average future grade which gives him three solid offerings and a change-up. Though his change may be the lowest graded pitch at a 45, Ponce could still be in the running for one of the Bucs’ rotation spots.

Among top prospects we could see eventually take over a rotation spot, Cody Bolton will likely see some time in the majors during 2021. Bolton put himself on prospect maps after a great 2019 season at High-A ball. Through 60.1 innings, Bolton tossed for an outstanding 1.61 ERA, 1.96 FIP, and .859 WHIP. He posted a strong 28.9% strikeout rate to go with an equally as good 5.9% walk rate. Notably, he only gave up 1 home run with a 46.7% ground ball rate. Bolton didn’t rely on luck either as he had a 2.46 xFIP.

Bolton struggled when he was promoted to Double-A allowing a 5.85 ERA, 4.67 FIP and 1.35 WHIP in 40.1 innings. However, we have previously noted that even though he’s struggled when moved to Double-A, many other of the Bucs’ top pitching prospects would struggle under the old regime when they were promoted to the next level of the majors.

Regardless, Bolton still has an above-average fastball. FanGraphs projects it as a 55-grade pitch. He averages out in the 92-95 MPH range and has topped out at 97 MPH and he also puts a great spin on the pitch with 2450 RPM in 2019. His slider is his best pitch as FanGraphs gives it a future grade of 60. Pipeline describes it as a slurvy power pitch. Plus it averaged 2600 RPM during the season. His last pitch is a change-up and while it has the lowest current grade of any of his pitches coming in at a 45, it’s still seen as a pitch that can be average with a future 50-grade.

Next. Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects. dark

If the Pirates do trade both Musgrove and Brault, they may also look into signing a veteran innings eater type starter. A pitcher like J.A. Happ, Julio Teheran, or Cole Hamels would represent a low-cost option that could provide a good amount of quality innings.