Pirates' playoff hopes hinge upon handling of their young pitchers

Everyone is talking about how the Pirates can make noise in October thanks to their starting pitching. But the club needs to be careful to do enough to get them there while still allowing them to survive a playoff run.
May 26, 2024; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers Paul Skenes (left) and Jared Jones (right) walk in the outfield before the game against the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
May 26, 2024; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers Paul Skenes (left) and Jared Jones (right) walk in the outfield before the game against the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates have become one of the most exciting teams to watch in all of baseball thanks to their suddenly stud-laden rotation headlined by Paul Skenes, Jared Jones, and Mitch Keller. All three appear to be fixtures of the staff for the long haul, with Skenes and Jones both rookies and Keller signing an extension in Spring Training to keep him in Pittsburgh through 2028. The future looks bright.

The present also looks bright, or at least it should. Despite the starting rotation appearing to be the Pirates' most glaring weakness entering the season, it has actually been what has carried the team to this point, although that "point" is a 34-37 record, which is somehow just one game out of a playoff spot.

There are currently nine National League teams within two games of each other vying for two Wild Card spots. Of them, only the Padres, Diamondbacks, and maybe the Giants have starting pitching that can go toe-to-toe with that of the Pirates, although all three of those clubs are dealing with multiple injuries to their starters.

The response, then, should be obvious - make an aggressive push to separate from that giant pack of teams and snatch a Wild Card spot. This would require Ben Cherington to take an approach at the trade deadline that he has thus far avoided during his time in Pittsburgh. While the rotation is strong, the rest of the roster - areas that appeared to be strengths coming into the season - need reinforcements.

The Pirates' offense, the same one that led the league in home runs in Spring Training, currently ranks a modest 22nd in runs per game. The lineup seldom lacks talent, but many of the team's key contributors (Ke'Bryan Hayes, Jack Suwinski, Rowdy Tellez, Jared Triolo, Michael A. Taylor, Henry Davis) have struggled mightily. Those six players have taken nearly 40 percent of the team's plate appearances and have a combined OPS of just .571.

There are obvious upgrades the Pirates should consider offensively, namely at first base, in the outfield, and perhaps behind the plate. Tellez has started to rebound in June but that comes on the heels of a two-month stretch where he posted an unimaginably bad .463 OPS. Taylor is having the worst offensive season of his career and Suwinski has stopped hitting for power entirely, leaving center field as a black hole in the Pirates' lineup. And if the Pirates are serious about contending this season, it's difficult to continue to be patient with Davis, who mashed in Triple-A but looks completely lost against MLB pitching.

But the biggest strength of the team was supposed to be the bullpen, and it certainly hasn't played out that way. They still possess an imposing big-three to close out games - David Bednar and Aroldis Chapman have steadied after taking their lumps early, and Colin Holderman has been nails all year. But the middle relief corps, which once looked like a strong group, has been dealt a tough hand.

Three of the Pirates' better middle relief options in 2023 were Dauri Moreta, Ryan Borucki, and Carmen Mlodzinski. Moreta, who had a 3.72 ERA and led all Pirates relievers not named David Bednar in innings in 2023, suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Spring Training. Borucki came out of nowhere and produced last year, but landed on the IL after just four appearances this year. After an impressive rookie showing, Mlodzinski started this season on the IL and is sporting a 4.67 ERA in his first 12 appearances.

The bullpen depth is nowhere near where it was a season ago. The Pirates got 131.1 innings of 3.84 ERA ball from Andre Jackson, Yohan Ramirez, Angel Perdomo, and Yerry De Los Santos last year. None of them move the needle significantly, but that's legitimate production that the Pirates have been unable to replicate, which makes the team's decisions to move on from Roansy Contreras and Jose Hernandez more puzzling.

As a response, the Bucs have had to attempt to patch together a bullpen using minor league signings (Ryder Ryan, Hunter Stratton, Ben Heller) and desperate mid-season acquisitions of other clubs' cast-offs (Justin Bruihl, Dennis Santana, Daulton Jefferies) who have produced a combined 6.88 ERA to this point. Adding reliable and proven arms to the bullpen is a must for the front office at the upcoming trade deadline.

While internal improvements and external acquisitions are key to keeping the Pirates in the race, perhaps most important is that they maintain the level of production they've gotten from the starting rotation that currently ranks seventh in innings pitched and 11th in ERA. The most important factor here is the management of Skenes and Jones.

It would be difficult to argue with how the Pirates have managed those two to this point. But it's pretty much a guarantee that each pitcher, provided that they stay healthy, will comfortably surpass their career-high total of innings pitched. Last year, Jones threw 126.1 innings across two minor league levels and Skenes threw 129.1 innings between his time at LSU and his brief professional cameo after he was drafted.

There is no hard-set, clearly defined rule regarding how to increase the usage of young pitchers. On a recent podcast appearance, Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake alluded to a "general rule of thumb" of a 25 percent year-over-year increase in a pitcher's innings to build them up gradually, but also safely and responsibly.

If the Pirates were to implement this, which isn't impossible given how conservative the team usually is handling stuff like this, that would afford Jones 79 more innings and Skenes 101 more innings in 2024. Based on each pitcher's average innings per start this year, that's approximately 14 more starts for Jones and 18 more starts for Skenes.

In order to pull this off, the Pirates would likely need to implement a six-man rotation for a prolonged stretch, as opposed to moving them to the bullpen or shutting them down for a period of time, as they had done previously with Roansy Contreras. This may require the Pirates to acquire another starting pitcher, depending on the health of Marco Gonzales and Quinn Priester, and puts more pressure on the bullpen that has struggled all season and would, in turn, likely be short a man while the team deploys six starters.

All that just to hopefully get to October. There's no guarantee of getting there at all or of how many more innings would be required.

It's clear that the Pirates, as things stand right now, aren't good enough to be legitimate contenders. There are too many holes and inconsistent players and not nearly enough pitching depth.

Even so, the Pirates are right in the thick of the race and possess starting pitching good enough to go on a postseason run.

While plenty needs to happen both internally and externally for the Pirates to get to the playoffs, how the front office and coaching staff chooses to manage Paul Skenes and Jared Jones is crucial. It's crucial to whether they get there at all and how long they last if they do get there. While many eyes will be watching how the front office navigates the trade deadline and roster construction, keep an eye on how the Pirates manage their two young stars.