Pittsburgh Pirates: Is Building Around The Pitching Staff The Right Idea?

The Pirates are likely going to build around their pitching staff, but is this the right move?

Aug 25, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington
Aug 25, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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The Pittsburgh Pirates have been building up the system and roster with pitching talent since the start of the rebuild. But is this the right move to be a successful team in the long term?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been rebuilding over the last few years, since the end of the 2019 season, to be exact. Since then, the team has made multiple trades, has signed a handful of prospects out of the international market, and has gone through four drafts. Throughout all of these, this Pirates regime looks like they want to build around the pitching staff.

Returning to the start of the rebuild, the Pirates heavily invested in pitching. In their first big trade, where they sent Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks, they got Brennan Malone back in the deal. At the time, Malone was a recent first-round pick and was considered one of the best prep pitchers in the draft. Unfortunately, Malone’s career has been completely derailed by injuries, but a look at Ben Cherington’s first draft also supports this idea of building around the pitching staff.

Cherington only had six picks to work with, as the 2020 draft was shortened to five rounds due to COVID. Of those six picks, five were pitchers. Only one was a position player that being Nick Gonzales. The following off-season, the Pirates made even more trades. The three big ones were Joe Musgrove, Josh Bell, and Jameson Taillon. The Taillon trade got back the most talented pitchers, Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, alongside two other position players. Injuries have also sidelined Yajure’s career, and the jury is still out on Contreras after his solid rookie season.

Bell got the Pirates two more pitching prospects in Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. The Musgrove trade had the least amount of pitching talent of the time, with only David Bednar, Omar Cruz, and Drake Fellows going to Pittsburgh. Of course, Bednar has since become one of baseball’s best closers. Not much was expected from Fellow nor Cruz, though they are still in the Pirate system.

In the same offseason, the Pirates signed Po-Yu Chen out of Taiwan. Chen was one of the top high schoolers out of his respective country and quickly proved to be a good pick-up for the Pirates. The 2021 draft then rolled around, and while pitching talent wasn’t as prominent as it was in 2020, the Pirates still picked a handful of talented pitchers. They took three high school pitchers of note, all of whom signed over-slot deals. That was Anthony Solometo (2nd round), Bubba Chandler (3rd round), and Owen Kellington (4th round).

Then came the 2021 trade deadline. The big deal the Bucs made was sending all-star second baseman Adam Frazier to the San Diego Padres, but the Pirates only received back one pitching prospect, a relief prospect who was more of a throw-in than a key part of the return. They then traded Richard Rodriguez, who got the Bucs back Ricky DeVito and Bryse Wilson. DeVito was a high-ceiling/low-floor pitching prospect, but Wilson had previously been a consensus top-100 prospect. Another noteworthy deal they made was sending Tyler Anderson to the Seattle Mariners for two prospects, including youngster Joaquin Tejada, a right-handed pitcher who just turned 20 in July.

The Pirates only made one significant trade in the 2021-2022 off-season, sending catcher Jacob Stallings to the Miami Marlins. The Pirates got back two pitchers, Zach Thompson and prospect Kyle Nicolas. They also picked up some international free agents. Their top signings weren’t pitchers, with that title belonging to Yordany De Los Santos and Tony Blanco Jr. However, both Hung Leng Chang and Pitterson Rosa were still noteworthy additions to the system. Both are young right-handers still working their way up the pipeline.

The 2022 draft was the second draft where the Pirates put a very heavy emphasis on pitching. Of the 19 players they signed, 15 were pitchers. This group included some names that have broken out this year, like Thomas Harrington, Michael Kennedy, and J.P. Massey. Their second-round pick, Hunter Barco, is another lefty. He returned from Tommy John surgery earlier this year and has looked pretty decent in his comeback.

The 2022 deadline got the Pirates back a lot of pitching talent. Their big move of sending Jose Quintana to the St. Louis Cardinals got the team a potential long-term starting pitcher. Johan Oviedo has looked very solid this year. He’s had his ups and downs, but nothing concerning for a young pitcher in his first full MLB season. The other trade was sending Daniel Vogelbach to the NY Mets for Colin Holderman. Holderman has been an excellent set-up man for David Bednar. Aside from a poor June, where he struggled with locating and ending up on the IL for a few weeks, he’s been next to lights out.

The Pirates then signed another big-time pitching prospect in the international market in the off-season, inking South Korean right-hander Jun-Seok Shim. Shim has missed a good portion of the 2023 season but has an extremely high ceiling. He’s already topping out at triple-digits before his 20th birthday. Shim also has some decent secondary and breaking offerings. Had Shim stayed in Korea and entered the KBO’s draft, he was projected to be the best pitcher available. They only made one trade to acquire a pitcher, sending infielder Kevin Newman to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Dauri Moreta. The Rule 5 draft also got the Pirates another lefty reliever in Jose Hernandez.

This year’s draft was the Pirates’ third pitcher-heavy selecting process. They had the number one pick and took Paul Skenes out of Louisiana State University. Skenes signed a record-setting signing bonus of $9.2 million and is considered one of, if not the most talented pitcher (if not player in general) to be selected. But they also took Zander Mueth, another high school pitcher with a very high ceiling. So far, the Pirates have done well with their high school selections. The Pirates failed to sign just one of their 20 selections. Of the 19 they did sign, 15 were pitchers, once again.

The most recent deadline only saw the Pirates acquire one pitching prospect. That was Jackson Wolf, who was part of a three-player package from the San Diego Padres for veterans Rich Hill and Ji-Man Choi. Wolf has looked like a solid potential mid-rotation arm. He’s a soft-tosser with a side-arm arm slot. But again, it adds yet another pitching prospect to the system.

Even just next year, they should get back a few key pitchers. The first is JT Brubaker, who underwent Tommy John surgery right before the season started. Brubaker was in line for a rotation spot and showed some improvements in the 2022 season. The second is Mike Burrows, a right-hander who made major gains in prospect stock in 2021 and 2022. Burrows likely would have been given the keys to a Major League rotation spot by now if he hadn’t undergone the same surgery as Brubaker, but in mid-April.

FanGraphs currently ranks 46 players on the Pirates’ top prospect list, and 26 are pitchers. MLB ranks 30 prospects for each team. Exactly half are pitchers. In their most recent off-season, the Pirates spent $30.375 million on free agents. About 45% of that money went toward pitchers who were on the free agent market. It’s evident the Pirates are going for the “pitching wins championships” motto, but will that work out in the long run?

I would certainly say that it would build a good team. There is just one team in the top ten of pitching fWAR that isn’t in contention for a playoff spot this year, and that’s the San Diego Padres. Every team is either a division leader, currently holding onto a Wild Card spot, or is within three games of a Wild Card spot. If you look at some of the best pitching teams from 2010, nearly every single team is good.

The average winning percentage of the top 50 teams in pitching fWAR since 2010 is .577. Just two of the 50 teams lost more games than they won. In those lone cases, horrible defense and offense were more to blame than the pitching. It’s rare for a team to have that high of a winning percentage and still miss out on the playoffs. Since the introduction of the Wild Card round in 2012, no team has ever had that good of a winning percentage and missed out on the playoffs.

Now, with the expanded playoffs, it’s unlikely that will ever occur. Last year, the Phillies and Rays made it into the playoffs with a sub-.540 winning percentage and the D-Backs currently hold the last NL Wild Card spot with a .521 winning percentage. As extremely unlikely as it is, even the Pirates aren’t out of contention. They’re 8.5 wins out of a WC spot, and one hot streak is all it would take to make the last weeks of the season interesting. I am not saying they are making the playoffs this season (and I doubt they will), but all it would take is a good week or two of play, and they’d at least be an unexpected variable in the final weeks of the year.

The Pirates are in a good place with their future pitching depth. Going into Spring Training next year, Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo should be penned into the rotation, with Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Roansy Contreras, Andre Jackson, and Bailey Falter competing for rotation spots.

I’d assume they’d add another, more reliable veteran from the free agent market or trade market to help add more stability. However, by the 2024 All-Star Break, the likes of Brubaker and Burrows should be back.

Top prospects like Braxton Ashcraft, Jones, Solometo, and even Skenes should have at least made their debuts. Seeing as both Thomas Harrington and Bubba Chandler have done well this season, they might even be on the docket for a promotion in the second half of 2024. Don’t forget about the likes of Barco, Wolf, and Chen. Plenty of other young arms like Mueth, Kennedy, and Shim will be names to watch at the FCL, DSL, and Bradenton next year.

The relief pitching also looks like it could be in good hands. Bednar and Holderman have the 9th and 8th innings on lockdown. The rest of the pen has more questions than answers, but I feel some will be resolved.

Ryan Borucki, Jose Hernandez, Angel Perdomo, and Dauri Moreta showed they could be decent middle relievers who could handle higher leverage situations if asked this year. Carmen Mlodzinski has been good since getting to the Majors. Kyle Nicolas has seemingly figured it out this year as a relief pitcher. Like with the starting pitching, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates added one or two relievers via free agency or trade to add some more stability. Plus, maybe Colin Selby will break out next season, adding another reliable arm to the pen.

Of course, pitching is just one side of the coin, though I believe the Pirates will have a good enough defense and offense to support the pitching. As we’ve looked over recent baseball history, good pitching typically leads to a good team. There are only very few select cases where that means otherwise. With the amount of pitching talent the Pirates have built up over the last few years, they’ll definitely be able to field five solid starters and a few decent relievers who can help them make a playoff run.

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