The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of pitching prospects approaching the major leagues, but what major league starters could get moved to the bullpen?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of notable MLB-ready starting pitching prospects. Quinn Priester, Luis Ortiz, and Mike Burrows are the big three, but you also have Kyle Nicolas and Carmen Mldozinski. In the major leagues, right-handers Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Johan Oviedo, and JT Brubaker will look to make up the Pirate starting 1-4. Not to mention they have other options like Bryse Wilson and Zach Thompson, and they could sign a free agent to lock down the final rotation spot.
If, by early next season, the Pittsburgh Pirates start seeing prospects like Burrows, Priester, Ortiz, Nicolas, and Mlodzinski pushing for 26-man roster spots, they’ll have to move at least one starter to the bullpen. If the Pirates are forced to do so, who gets moved to a relief role?
The two that have almost no chance of being moved to a bullpen role are Roansy Contreras and Mitch Keller. Although both saw a few outings in pen in 2022, they’ve proven that they can be quality major league starting pitchers. Even in the event that one struggles, there’s more of a chance they’ll get sent back to Triple-A to figure things out than get moved to the Major League bullpen.
Johan Oviedo does have some relief risk, and the Pirates knew that when they acquired him. When the Pirates acquired the right-hander from the St. Louis Cardinals, he had only made one start in 14 total appearances. In 2020 and 2021, Oviedo posted a poor 5.07 ERA, 5.28 FIP, and 1.52 WHIP making 18 starts in 19 total games.
FanGraphs’ pre-2021 write-up stated that “it’s looking more like that will be in relief further down the line.” Oviedo throws hard and averages out at 96.5 MPH with his fastball with the Bucs. He also throws a nice slider, but his change-up and curveball are average offerings. Still, Oviedo certainly has a very high ceiling. Even though he mostly appeared out of the bullpen for the Cards, Oviedo gained about 1 MPH of velocity after the trade and became a starting pitcher full-time.
Oviedo’s higher ceiling will get him a longer look in a rotation than JT Brubaker, who is the second bullpen candidate. Brubaker didn’t have a terrible year, but that’s not to say it was a good year, either. Brubaker had a poor 4.69 ERA and 1.47 WHIP but a solid 3.92 FIP in 144 innings. While Brubaker’s walk and strikeout rates both moved in the wrong direction from 2021, he nearly cut his home run rate in half from 2.03-per-9 to 1.06-per-9. His overall batted ball rates had fairly minor changes, but more normal luck was the main factor in Brubaker’s home run rate decreasing dramatically. He had a 22.4% HR/FB ratio in 2021 but an 11.7% ratio in 2022 despite his FB% only dropping by about 2%.
Brubaker’s underlying metrics viewed him in a more positive light, with a 3.87 SIERA and 3.87 xFIP. Aside from xFIP and SIERA painting Brubaker has a solid right-handed starter, batting average on balls in play also points to better day ahead of him. Brubaker had a .334 BAbip, which was much higher than his 2020-2021 rate of .295. Brubaker hasn’t had much good luck on his side in his major league career yet.
But the numbers support that Brubaker may potentially be better in a bullpen role. Brubaker struck out 28.5% of the batters he faced and had a quality 6.5% walk rate in the first inning. He also did not allow a home run, and while his 4.50 1st inning ERA wasn’t promising, he also suffered from a .377 batting average on balls in play. Brubaker had a sub-2.00 FIP and sub-3.00 xFIP in inning #1.
However, in innings 2-4, Brubaker had a sub-par 20.4% strikeout rate, 10.7% walk rate, 1.4 HR/9, and 4.87 FIP/4.53 xFIP. Brubaker may also see a slight uptick in velo from a move to the bullpen, and he could become more focused on just two or three pitches rather than the five he throws. Only his sinker and curveball were above average in 2022, according to run value at -4 for both.
Although Oviedo may seem like the more proto-typical arm to get moved to the bullpen, Brubaker makes more sense. Brubaker’s ceiling is a high-3.00 ERA, mid-rotation arm. While there’s value in that, if Oviedo reaches his ceiling, he could be a no. 2 starter. That’s not to say that Brubaker’s days as a starting pitcher would be over, but he would be the likeliest to be forced out of the rotation as things stand right now.