Pittsburgh Pirates: Taking Stock of In-House LHP Options for 2023

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - AUGUST 08: Manny Banuelos #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 08, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - AUGUST 08: Manny Banuelos #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 08, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have some notable internal left-handed pitching options for the 2023 season

The Pittsburgh Pirates had very few left-handed pitchers in 2022. After a scorching April, Dillon Peters struggled with injuries and performance on the mound. Anthony Banda opened the year in the bullpen but surrendered 14 earned runs in just 19.2 innings. Aaron Fletchers was outright terrible, walking nearly as many batters as he struck out. Other depth lefties like Eric Stout, Cam Vieux, and Sam Howard made minimal impact for the Bucs. The only truly good lefty the Pirates had was José Quintana.

Going into next season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a slightly brighter outlook when it comes to left-handed pitching options. Manny Bañuelos will likely return for a second season in black and gold. After a poor first outing with the Pirates, Banuelos worked to the tune of a 3.62 ERA, 3.24 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP through his final 32.1 innings of 2022. His 11.9% walk rate wasn’t good, but he had an above-average 24.6% strikeout rate and allowed just a single home run. Banuelos was elite at limiting good contact. He held opponents to just an 84.2 MPH exit velocity while having a 52.5% ground ball rate. Banuelos’ ability to keep the ball on the ground, avoid hard contact like the plague, and post a solid strikeout rate definitley makes him a potential breakout candidate next season.

While some may point to his .259 batting average on balls in play as a potential indicator of good luck playing a hand in his performance with the Pittsburgh Pirates, again, you have to remember this guy had a 2.4% barrel rate throughout this time. League average barrel rate is 6.7%, and all but one of the pitchers with a sub-3% barrel rate had a batting average on balls in play over .290. Most had a BAbip below .270.

Arguably the Pirate top left-handed relief prospect is Nick Dombkowski. The southpaw was signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2021 draft and recently appeared on FanGraphs’ top Pittsburgh Pirates prospect list as their 55th-best prospect. Dombkowski turned in a strong season on the mound, posting a 3.06 ERA, 3.26 FIP, and 1.10 WHIP in 67.1 innings of work. Dombkowski struck out 30.7% of the batters he faced with a walk rate below 8% at 6.8%. He was just one of 31 total pitchers in minor league baseball with at least 50 innings pitched, a walk rate below 7%, and a strikeout rate above 30%. On top of that, he had a pretty solid .94 HR/9. Dombkowski led Pirates relief prospects in multiple statistical catergories.

Dombkowski made it all the way to Double-A this year, joining fellow LHP relief prospect Tyler Samaniego. Samaniego finished the year with a 2.45 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and a microscopic .80 WHIP in 47.2 innings. The southpaw had a 56.6% ground ball rate with a similar strikeout rate and walk rate to Manny Banuelos, clocking in at 25.5% and 10.9%, respectively. However, there were two things worth mentioning after Samaniego was promoted to Double-A Altoona. He reduced his walk rate all the way from 16.2% with Greensboro to just 7.8% with Altoona, but his K% also plummeted from 35.3% to just 19.8%.

A fourth lefty I think is worth mentioning is Omar Cruz. On the surface, Cruz might seem like a Dillon Peters clone, but he has much better breaking and off-speed stuff. Cruz struggled, owning a 5.03 ERA, 4.90 FIP, and 1.42 WHIP in 62.2 innings with Altoona. But he was injured for a good portion of the 2022 season. The off-speed stuff is definitely intriguing. He has a plus-plus change-up and a big looping curveball, so you can’t rule out him eventually serving some sort of swing-man-type role.

The fifth and final lefty worth mentioning is Trey McGough. McGough looked decent for Altoona in 2021, posting the lowest walk rate among all Pirates minor league pitchers at 5.4%. But that did come with the caveat of a 19.7% strikeout rate rate. It was more of the same story for McGough this year, with an 18.6% strikeout rate and 5.7% walk rate, but he allowed four home runs in just 17.2 innings. But it is worth mentioning three of those long balls came in his next-to-last outing, and five of the six earned runs he allowed also came in the same outing. It’s a small sample size that was cut short because of injury, but outside of that one outing, McGough had a .56 ERA, .56 HR/9, and a walk rate of 3.5%. Had it not been for an injury that kept him out most of the season.

That about wraps it up for what the Pittsburgh Pirates have for MLB-ready options among their southpaws. Admittedly, it’s not the deepest list. I have hope that Banuelos can be a solid arm for the Bucs and that both Samaniego and Dombkowski can be quality relievers for the team, but it would certainly help if the Pirates signed or acquired a more proven option to complement Banuelos, at least to start the 2023 season.

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Many of the more talented left-handed pitching prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates have, such as Anthony Solometo, Michael Kennedy, and Hunter Barco, are in the low levels of the minor leagues and are at least three years out, but the Pirates should be able to make do with what they have, at least in the bullpen. Opening the 2023 season with Banuelos and another LHP option (whether that be one of the prospects or acquired via trade or free agency) is better than opening 2022 with Banda, Howard, and Peters.