Pittsburgh Pirates: Potential Early Concerns About Starting Pitching Depth

Feb 27, 2023; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher JT Brubaker (34) throws a
Feb 27, 2023; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher JT Brubaker (34) throws a / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

With their pitching depth already being tested, should the Pittsburgh Pirates already have concerns about their starting pitching depth?

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting rotation depth is already being tested. JT Brubaker will start the year on the injured list with a forearm/elbow strain. While not every forearm/elbow strain leads to Tommy John surgery, almost every TJ surgery stems from a forearm/elbow strain.

Either way, that’s already a decent hit to the starting rotation depth, as Brubaker was projected to play a key back of the rotation role. But should the team worry about their starting pitching depth already?

The simple answer right now is no. The Pirates will now go into the year with Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, and Johan Oviedo as their starting five. Four of those five pitchers have a very good chance of producing an average or better ERA+ (100 is average). The only major concern is Velasquez. Velasquez’s best single-season ERA since 2017 is 91, meaning he has been 9% worse than the league average at preventing earned runs from crossing the plate, and that’s his best. Last season, he had an 83 ERA+ with the White Sox (17% worse than average).

Having Velasquez in the rotation isn’t an ideal scenario. If Brubaker was healthy, he’d make a fine no. 5 starter, and you’d get the chance to have every single arm produce average or better results. But still, a mix of Keller, Hill, Contreras, and Oviedo is a nice mix. At the very least, the Brubaker injury opened the door for Oviedo. The young right-hander, who the Pirates acquired at the deadline, wasn’t guaranteed a major league roster spot, let alone a rotation spot until Brubaker hit the IL. Oviedo ended 2022 on a high note, and now he’ll get a chance to show off what he can do.

I also don’t think their starting pitching depth later in the season will be an issue. The Pirates have Luis Ortiz and Mike Burrows at Triple-A. If Velasquez is struggling at the end of April, you might see one of them in the big league rotation. Ortiz made his debut last year, and Burrows pitched half of the 2022 season at Indianapolis. Both Ortiz and Burrows are also on the 40-man roster. Triple-A also has Quinn Priester, Kyle Nicolas, and Carmen Mlodzinski rounding out their starting rotation to open the year.

If there is only one questionable starting pitcher among the five going into the year, the Pirates’ starting rotation should be fine. This isn’t like last year when they had Brubaker as the Opening Day starter, with an unproven Mitch Keller, shaky Bryse Wilson, and Zach Thompson, and Jose Quintana going into the year. Keller (post-breakout), Contreras, and Oviedo all have immense upside. Sure, Hill is old, but he has still managed to be effective into his early-40s. With the prospects coming through the system, they can supplement Velasquez if/when he struggles.

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