Pittsburgh Pirates: Pitching Development Will Be Key to the Future


The Pittsburgh Pirates have put a heavy focus on pitching depth and development for the long term future.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of Major League-ready pitching depth throughout the organization. Currently, it’s one of the franchise’s biggest strengths and something they should use to build off of throughout their near-term future. Top-to-bottom, the organization has a ton of pitching depth that will be at their disposal next season and in the following seasons. Overall, it’s a pretty impressive group led by a strong development team.

The most prominent name who should receive a fair amount of playing time during this upcoming season is Roansy Contreras. Contreras made massive strides in 2021, increasing his fastball velo to the 96-98 MPH range without losing any command. Contreras has a wicked slider, plus a curveball, and reliable change-up. He got his first taste of major league batters last season and tossed three scoreless innings during the season’s final series.

Newly acquired right-hander Zach Thompson is another quality arm who should take up a rotation spot next season. Thompson was a surprise rookie with the Miami Marlins, who they signed as a minor league free agent during the prior off-season. Thompson displayed one of the league’s best cutters while inducing soft contact at a well above-average rate. Thompson should be in the Opening Day rotation and might just be a long-term quality arm.

Miguel Yajure also will likely be part of the team’s Opening Day rotation. The right-hander was injured for a good chunk of 2021, which played a role in his decreased velocity late into the season. When he’s healthy, he displays five, average or better offerings, and his pitches play at a good level because of his plus-plus command. If Yajure is fully healthy, he should be another quality arm the Bucs can rely on for most of 2022.

Mitch Keller will be one of the most fascinating players to follow this season. Keller was previously a high-end pitching prospect who’s yet to find consistency in the majors. He’s suffered everything from awful luck to phenomenal luck and a good game, every other start in 2021. However, if his off-season bullpens have anything to say, he’s definitely on an upward trend. Keller is now topping out around 100-101 MPH and consistently hitting 98 MPH. His peak fastball MPH since reaching the majors is 98.3 MPH. His other offerings have seen an uptick in velo, with his slider now hitting 90 MPH (2021 average was 86 MPH).

Another prospect who might get a look early into 2022 is Max Kranick. In his debut, the right-hander fired five perfect innings against the St. Louis Cardinals but struggled heavily in his starts after that. Still, he has a sinking fastball that hits 94-96 MPH and tops out at 98. He also showed off a nice upper-80’s slider, low-80’s curve, and a change-up. He was about average in the hard-hit and exit velo department as well. Command has been a question mark for Kranick, giving him the makings of a back of the rotation arm.

Bryse Wilson is another enticing arm that will have a shot to lock down a rotation spot long-term. The right-hander was considered a consensus top 100 prospect back in the late 2010s but has yet to be given a fair shot in the major leagues. He’s only pitched 116.2 innings across four seasons, with over 60% of those innings coming this past season. Wilson has displayed a solid low-to-mid-90’s four-seamer and above-average command. I don’t think it’s fair to judge Wilson by what he’s done in the majors so far because he’s almost has never pitched without the threat of being demoted within the next three days.

J.T. Brubaker will likely get another shot to demonstrate if he can be a rotation piece for the Pirates. He had a quality 4.00 xFIP, 4.04 SIERA, and 4.32 DRA, all of which were above average marks. Despite Brubaker’s putrid 2.03 HR/9 rate, his batted ball rates all were around average. As Baseball Savant notes, the right-hander’s batted ball profile was closer to Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, and Jack Flaherty. All of those arms didn’t have nearly the same struggle with home runs as Brubaker did.

A late-season addition the Pittsburgh Pirates made was acquiring Dillon Peters from the LA Angels. Peters ended up putting together a string of quality starts down the stretch and put himself in the running for a rotation spot in 2022. The left-hander has consistently shown a solid ability to keep the ball on the ground and prevent home runs throughout the minor leagues. He could be quite the underrated addition if his 2021 numbers weren’t a complete fluke.

Finally, you have Wil Crowe among the Pittsburgh Pirates arms with major league experience. Crowe didn’t have the best rookie seasons, however there were a few silver linings. He ended the year on a high note, posting a 3.20/3.63 ERA/FIP in his last 19.2 innings. His change-up also had a -5 run value. Although Crowe isn’t necessarily the fanciest option, he’s far from the only option. Plus, he could end up being a solid spot-starter/long-relief swingman type arm.

Now that’s all the Pittsburgh Pirates arms who have MLB experience. There are still a few pitchers who we’ll see next season that haven’t made their debut yet. It’s very possible that we will see Carmen Mlodzinski sometime during summer. Mlodzinski reached Triple-A last season after posting solid numbers at High-A Greensboro. A competitive balance pick, Mlodzinski brings a fastball, slider/cutter, and change-up to the table. All of his offerings are above average in MLB Pipeline’s eyes. He needs to refine his command, but many project him as a high-end no. 3 starter.

Lefties Omar Cruz and Trey McGough are potential early-season call-ups for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cruz is a soft-tossing lefty who uses command and some deceptive breaking/off-speed stuff to get outs. He’s yet to struggle at any level and will be part of Indianapolis’ Triple-A rotation. McGough is another southpaw who should pair with Cruz in Indy’s rotation. He had a quality 2021 season where he led all Pirates’ minor league starters in walk rate (5.5%).

That’s just pitchers that we’ll likely see in 2022. Even among the likes of Crowe, Wilson, Kranick, Brubaker, and Peters, there’s likely at least one good starting pitcher. But while that group of arms might be impressive, it gets even better once you look into 2023-2024.

By this time, we’re seeing Quinn Priester in the majors and making starts regularly. The Pittsburgh Pirates best pitching prospect, Priester, was a first-round pick in 2019. He had a great season at High-A Greensboro, including a blazing hot finish to the season, and will likely get things kicked off at Double-A Altoona. He brings one of the best curveballs in the minor leagues to the table, as well as a mid-to-upper-90’s fastball, great cutter, sinking two-seamer, decent slider, and usable change-up. Could we see him get a similar treatment to Contreras and Oneil Cruz? Possibly, especially if he keeps up his second-half performance from 2021.

One of Priester’s rotation-mates at Altoona should be Michael Burrows. Burrows is another arm we could see get a Cruz/Contreras treatment next season. The high-spin right-hander skyrocketed up prospect boards last season and now sits as a borderline top 100 prospect per FanGraphs. Not only does he throw with a lot of spin, he averages out in the mid-90’s. If he can clean his command up just a bit, especially on his change-up, we’re looking at potentially the most underrated arm in the system.

J.C. Flowers and Ricky DeVito are two more potential rotation-mates for Priester and Burrows at Altoona. Both possess nasty weapons. Flowers has a wicked wipeout slider, and DeVito has an elite splitter. It’s still up in the air whether their long-term home is in the rotation or bullpen but showed decent stuff in 2021, primarily as starting pitchers.

A few more potential Altoona arms include A-Ball pitcher of the year, Adrian Florencio, his Bradenton teammate Luis Ortiz, and right-hander, Kyle Nicolas. That’s another massive wave of potential arms for 2023. But 2024 gives the Pirates yet another chance to debut an elite-level arm.

That arm is Jared Jones. Jones is already averaging out at 95-99 MPH before turning 21-years-old. After showing off his four-seamer, slider, curveball, and change-up at Bradenton, he’ll be a mainstay in Greensboro’s rotation in 2022. If things go according to plan, he’s a potential mid-to-late-season, 2023 promotion, but in all likelihood will be in the running for a permanent rotation spot for 2024.

Jones and others like Nick Garcia, Brennan Malone, Eddy Yean, and Logan Hofmann are all guys we could see throughout late-2023/early-2024. Past 2023-2024, it’s a bit hazier but still bright with guys like Bubba Chandler, Owen Kellington, Anthony Solometo, Po-Yu Chen, and a handful of other recent high school draft picks and international signees.

Just today alone, I’ve named 28 total pitchers. Most of those names will make their debut between 2022 to 2024. It’s a very good, very deep, and very talented mix of players. However, it’s also awe-inspiring and gives the Pirates an excellent future outlook. No team will hit 100% of their prospects, but there is more than enough talent to find at least five quality starters. As we’ve seen with many of the teams that make the playoffs, pitching wins games more often than hitting.

Pitching is something the Pittsburgh Pirates should have covered for the next handful of years. Even with the 28 guys we named who we’ll see in 2022-2024, there are still over a half dozen other arms in the system that you can probably think of that could make something of themself. For example: what about Cody Bolton, Drake Fellows, Tahnaj Thomas, or Austin Roberts. That amount of pitching depth is absolutely something the Pirates need to take advantage of.

Luckily for fans, it already looks like the Pittsburgh Pirates recognize this potential strength and have made strides to improve their potential pitching situation. Ben Cherington has essentially rebuilt the player development staff from the ground up. However, the biggest and arguably most impactful hire he made was Dewey Robinson.

Robinson is hailed as one of, if not, the best pitching coordinators in Major League Baseball. The Pirates poached him from the Rays, who are infamous for their ability to not only develop talented pitchers but find diamonds in the rough to build their pitching staff. Robinson has played a huge role in helping the Rays earn that reputation. He was also named pitching development man of the year during his tenure with the Houston Astros. Robinson is arguably more valuable than any free agent the Pirates could have added.

A big issue the former regime had with pitching development was getting youngsters to reach their full potential. The Pittsburgh Pirates can’t have another Gerrit Cole-Tyler Glasnow-Charlie Morton happen with Contreras-Priester-Jones. However with Robinson at the helm and a brand new development staff behind him, the Pirates are doing everything in their power to prevent anything similar from happening again.

Best Pirate LHP Prospects. dark. Next

To put it simply, the outlook for the pitching staff is extremely bright. From now through 2024, there are more than enough talented arms the Pirates can find 5 stable and quality starters, at the very least. Not only do they have plenty of depth to work with, but they also have a new development regime headed by one of the best pitching development coordinators in baseball.