Pittsburgh Pirates: Internal Starting Pitching Options for 2023

Oct 3, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Mitch Keller (23) delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 3, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Mitch Keller (23) delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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BRADENTON, FLORIDA – MARCH 16: Quinn Priester #61 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a picture during the 2022 Photo Day at LECOM Park on March 16, 2022 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
BRADENTON, FLORIDA – MARCH 16: Quinn Priester #61 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a picture during the 2022 Photo Day at LECOM Park on March 16, 2022 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

Prospects Who Could Graduate

The highest-profile Pirate pitching prospect is Quinn Priester. The right-hander made it to Triple-A last season, where he made two starts. One was really good, where he pitched five scoreless innings striking out six and allowing five base runners (one hit batter, two hits, two walks), while the other saw him surrender four earned runs in just 4.1 innings while walking five and allowing a home run.

While his last start of the year wasn’t great, it doesn’t derail the overall talent Priester showed at the upper levels of the minor leagues. He mostly pitched for Double-A Altoona, making 15 total appearances/starts. While his 15th start for Altoona was not one to remember, Preister had a 2.13 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and 1.12 WHIP through his first 71.2 innings. This included a 24.1% strikeout rate, 6.9% walk rate, and 0.38 HR/9. Priester is a ground ball machine, so it’s no surprise he is a home run suppressant.

Priester has a wide variety of pitches, which helps him keep batters off balance. He’s consistently shown solid command and has put up decent walk rates in the minor leagues. He usually sits 94-96 MPH, but his curveball is elite. Priester could force himself into the major leagues early next season.

If Priester is the Pittsburgh Pirates highest profile starting pitching prospect, then Luis Ortiz isn’t far behind him.

Admittedly, Luis Ortiz’s minor league numbers from this past season do not looke like that of a future star starting pitcher. He had 4.56 ERA, 4.40 FIP, and 1.14 WHIP between Double-A and Triple-A. While he struck out a healthy number of batters, 27.1% to be exact, with a 7.5% walk rate, he also allowed home runs at a 1.45-per-9 mark. But you also can’t ignore his 2.61 ERA/2.48 FIP from August up until he was promoted to the big leagues, or his 3.75 xFIP. Ortiz gave up his fair share of home runs, but he also suffered from a 17.4% HR/FB ratio. He still had a great 47.8% groundball rate.

Once Ortiz made it to the big leagues, he reeled off 15.1 innings of two earned run baseball with 17 strikeouts. He did allow seven walks, but with an 85.3 MPH exit velocity and 44.4% ground ball rate, 13.5% line-drive rate, Ortiz looked great overall. He crashed-and-burned in his last start of the year, but like with Priester, one start doesn’t make a pitcher. Ortiz was firing 98-100 MPH fastballs with wicked sliders. Even though he rarely threw his change-up, batters didn’t collect a hit off of it in the 14 times he threw it. All three offerings displayed above average movement as well.

Another top prospect starting pitcher who stumbled in his last outings of the 2022 season was Mike Burrows. The right-hander pitched a total of 94.1 innings, but he surrendered six earned runs in the last two-thirds of an inning of his season. While Burrows had a 4.01 ERA overall, his number entering that game was just 3.46. Along with a solid ERA, he had an even better 3.11 FIP and 1.15 WHIP. Burrows owned a 28.8% K%, 7.8% walk rate, and .67 HR/9.

Burrows’ fastball/curveball combo is a deadly one-two punch. He sits around 93-96, but with over 2500 RPM of spin. His curveball can hit 3000 RPM. The question has always been whether his change-up would become a good enough pitch to rely on, and he’s certainly come a long way. Many evaluators have seen major steps forward with it, and it might finally be the third offering he’s needed to succeed.

Kyle Nicolas is a fourth prospect who could become part of the Pirates’ rotation at some point in 2023. The Pirates acquired Nicolas the prior off-season in the Jacob Stallings swap. As one of the three players in the deal, Nicolas showed off a ton of talent for the Pirates, but you wouldn’t have guessed that based on his so-so 3.97 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 1.30 WHIP. While he struck out over a quarter of the batters he faced with a 25.9% strikeout rate and a 0.89 HR/9, he also had a 12.1% walk rate.

But of those 40 earned runs Nicolas gave up in 90.2 innings, eight of those (20% of which) came all in just one outing. Four of the nine home runs he allowed also were from this game. This one game made up two innings of his season. Nicolas had a 3.25 ERA, 3.77 FIP, and a .51 HR/9 rate outside this one game. Nicolas likely would get more love from fans if he had a low-3 ERA instead of one approaching 4.00.

Nicolas throws in the mid/upper-90s with a wicked slider. His curveball is average at best, which is why some project him eventually moving to the bullpen. It also doesn’t help that he has mediocre command. But I believe he proved he could handle a starting role based on his what he did at Double-A last season.

Among other Pirates’ prospects, Cody Bolton spent his entire season at Triple-A Indy. While there were some red flags, such as a 12.4% walk rate and 4.85 xFIP, he had a decent rebound campaign overall. Bolton had a 3.09 ERA, 3.81 FIP, and 1.28 WHIP in a swing-man role. 2020 competitive balance draft pick Carmen Mlodzinski had an up-and-down season. While he allowed two or fewer earned runs in 18 of his outings, he allowed 4+ ER in five others. It was an inconsistent season for Mlodzinski, but he still could make it to the majors next season as a high-ceiling/low-floor type arm.

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