Pittsburgh Pirates: Team's Next Potential Ace
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of young and talented pitchers, but what player could have the best chance of becoming a future ace?
Every competing team needs someone who can lead the rotation and be one of the most important players on the team. The Pittsburgh Pirates have many talented pitching prospects coming up through the pipeline, some of which will be ready to make their debut next season. They also have some young arms with plenty of talent, so what player could become the Bucs' next ace?
Roansy Contreras is a potential answer at the major league level. Contreras worked to a 3.79 ERA, 4.38 FIP, and 1.27 WHIP through 95 innings of work. Contreras had sub-par peripherals, including a 21.1% strikeout rate, a 9.6% walk rate, and a 1.23 HR/9 rate. However, Contreras could see improvements in these areas next season.
The first reason is Contreras' home run rate is inflated a tad. Of the 13 home runs he allowed, three all came in one start that only lasted 1.2 innings. Outside of that one game, Contreras had a much better 0.94 HR/9. He also allowed seven earned runs in this one game, which made up nearly 20% of the total ER he allowed all year. His ERA falls to just 3.18 without this game. Contreras had a below-average K%, but he was in the 64th percentile of whiff rate and 82nd percentile of chase rate, showing he can get batters to swing and miss at his stuff.
Another potential easy answer is Quinn Priester. Priester pieced together another good minor league campaign, working to a 3.29 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP. Priester has never been a high strikeout pitcher, but he had a respectable 23.6% strikeout rate. He also had an above-average 8% walk rate. Priester is a ground ball king, posting a ground ball rate of 50% or greater for the third time in his career. This helped him have a strong 0.6 HR/9 rate.
Priester's stats are good, but they could have been even better. The talented right-hander allowed 11 earned runs in his 19th and 17th starts of the season. Despite these two outings making up a third of the total earned runs he allowed, they also made up just 8.9% of his total innings. Aside from these two games, Priester had a 2.40 ERA, an HR/9 of just 0.43, a 6.9% walk rate, and a 23.9% strikeout rate.
Priester has a five-pitch mix, including a four-seam fastball, curveball (which is one of the best of its kind in the minor leagues), changeup, sinker, and slider. The sinker has become a real weapon for Priester, but his slider has developed considerably well. It's a well-rounded arsenal, and the only pitch that's not considered a safely above-average offering is his change-up.
Luis Ortiz certainly has a very high ceiling. Last year, the flamethrowing right-hander made his major league debut. Although he bombed his last start of the year, he started off his major league career with 15.1 innings, 17 strikeouts, just two earned runs allowed, and no home runs. Ortiz's 44.4% ground ball rate was only 2.5% above the league average, but opponents couldn't square the ball up against him. They managed just an 85.3 MPH exit velocity and 29.7% hard-hit rate. He allowed just one barrelled ball in 42 total batted ball events in the major leagues, which is a 2.4% rate.
Ortiz's minor league numbers from this past season are not too impressive, at least on the surface. He owned a 4.56 ERA, 4.40 FIP, and 1.14 WHIP across 124.1 innings of work. Sure, he had a 27.1% strikeout rate and walk percentage of 7.5%, but his HR/9 clocked in at just 1.45.
However, there is reason to believe this was nothing more than a fluke.
Aside from inducing a ton of weak contact in the major leagues, Ortiz had just a 0.52 HR/9 in 2021. Sure, Altoona and Indy are a massive step forward from Bradenton, his ground ball rate was still an outstanding 47.8% rate, only 1.3% worse than with the Marauders the prior season. But what didn't work in Ortiz's favor was flyball luck. Ortiz had a 17.4% HR/FB ratio compared to 8.9% in '21.
Now granted, it seems hard to say Ortiz is the Pirates' next ace. How many aces are there that only rely on three pitches, with two getting most of the attention? But on the other hand, how many ace pitchers are there that throw as hard as Ortiz? Ortiz's fastball regularly hit 100 MPH in the major leagues, and he had the 9th most horizontal movement with the offering among pitchers who threw 100+ fastballs last season.
According to Baseball Savant, Ortiz's pitch arsenal gets some very good comps based on velocity and movement, which includes 2022 Sandy Alcantara, Luis Castillo, Gerrit Cole, and division rival flamethrower Hunter Greene. While Ortiz has a much smaller sample size to go off of than those four, you can't deny the talent is there.
Mitch Keller's 2022 breakout certainly was extremely promising but went very much under the radar. After adding a sinker to his mix, Keller made a major turn-around. On May 25th, Keller made his sinker a primary part of his pitch mix, and the results soon followed. From that point forward, he had just a 3.20 ERA, 3.67 FIP, and 1.34 WHIP. His sinker was sneakily one of the best of its kind. With a -7 run value, Keller had the 27th most valuable sinker-ball, tied with AL Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah and just above some very dominant names like Daniel Bard, Max Fried, and Yu Darvish.
Keller wasn't much of a strikeout pitcher with his new approach, with just a 20.7% strikeout rate, but he did have a solid 8.8% walk rate and kept a 0.67 HR/9. Keller became a ground ball pitcher with a 49.4% GB% and an opponent exit velocity of 88.2 MPH. But Keller's four-seam fastball and slider (which graded out as average and above average per run value) both had an above-average whiff rate, so maybe we will see a slight uptick in strikeout rate this season.
Contreras, Preister, Ortiz, and Mitch Keller are all pitchers that certainly have a chance to be the head of the Pirates' starting rotation. But it's also quite possible the Pirates' next ace hasn't even pitched at Double-A yet.
Arguably the Pirates' best pitching prospects will eventually be Bubba Chandler and Anthony Solometo. Both were over-slot draftees in 2021 and were projected to go within the first 20 picks. Maybe the Pirates haven't even drafted their future ace. Chase Dollander is considered the best pitcher in the draft since the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole played in college, the latter of which holds the highest signing bonus for a pitcher coming out of the draft. However the Pirates find their future ace, they'll surely be able to find one. The talent in the organization right now is just too good for one player not to step up big time.