It has been a few years since the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a quality starting rotation, but that could change in 2023
It’s been a while since the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a decent starting rotation. The last time the team’s starting pitchers had better than league average numbers was in 2017 when they had a 99 ERA- and 98 FIP-. The last time they were at least 10% better than league average was 2015, and the last time they also made the playoffs, having an 84 ERA- and 88 FIP-. This year, they have a 115 ERA- and 106 FIP-, which isn’t great, but an improvement from 2021. But there’s a very good possibility the Pirates have a good starting rotation in 2023.
The team should open the year with at least Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, and JT Brubaker in the starting rotation. Contreras has given the Pittsburgh Pirates a solid rookie season with a 3.72 ERA, 4.21 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP and should continue to improve.
Speaking of improving, Keller has been nothing short of outstanding since mid-May. Since adding a sinker to his arsenal, he has a 3.19 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 1.34 WHIP. Brubaker does have a 4.58 ERA but has cut his HR/9 nearly in half from 2.03 to 1.08 while posting a 3.94 FIP, 3.87 xFIP, and 3.95 SIERA. Despite giving up fewer fly balls and line drives and increasing his ground ball rate, Brubaker has seen his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) go from .295 in 2020-2021 to .333. He’s pitching better than his ERA suggests.
That’s a solid top three, and while Brubaker may not have the same potential as both Keller and Contreras do, he should at least be viewed as a no. 4 caliber starting pitcher. So who could fill in those last two spots, at least to open the year?
The Pittsburgh Pirates should give Luis Ortiz one of the spots. He’s impressed in his first three starts, only allowing two earned runs in 15.1 innings and striking out 17. On top of that, he’s induced a ton of weak contact. Johan Oviedo has also pitched well since the Bucs acquired him. In six starts and 26.2 innings, he has a 3.04 ERA and 3.54 FIP. He has run into some issues with walks, but he’s surrendered just one home run and has struck out 27.
If the Pirates open the 2023 campaign with Contreras, Keller, Ortiz, Brubaker, and Oviedo, they could have a decent rotation already, at least to open the year. Now by no means is that one of the starting five in the league, but it’s far from bad. However, it could improve throughout the year.
If Brubaker struggles or the Pirates feel that Ortiz or Oviedo would be better out of the bullpen, they’ll promote Quinn Priester. The 2019 first-round pick, Priester, turned in a quality campaign with a 3.29 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP. Granted, those stats are a bit inflated given that he surrendered seven earned runs in his last start at Altoona, which only lasted 3.2 innings. He also had a poor final outing of the season at Triple-A Indy. He made a total of 19 starts in an injury-limited campaign but gave up more than three earned runs just three times and gave up more than two earned runs just five times.
Mike Burrows is the other high-end prospect the Pirates could promote early into 2023. Like Priester, Burrows had a poor final outing of the season which severely inflated his overall numbers. Burrows’ ERA went from 3.46 to 4.01 because of that one start. But outside of that one outing, he had a 3.11 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, and 3.7 K:BB ratio to go along with the 3.46 ERA. He’s greatly improved his changeup, and it’s led to a much brighter outlook for the right-hander.
Maybe one of the other prospects like Kyle Nicolas, Carmen Mlodzinski, Cody Bolton, or J.C. Flowers steps up, or someone like Bryse Wilson or Zach Thompson figures things out, or the return of the injured Max Kranick gives the Pirates another arm to rely on, adding even more depth. But regardless, there’s a real chance that by June, the Pirates have a rotation of Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, and Luis Ortiz/Johan Oviedo/JT Brubaker, which in my mind, is a good rotation and top three in the National League Central.