Pittsburgh Pirates: Potential Starting Pitching Depth Option to Consider

Miami Marlins v Cleveland Guardians - Game Two
Miami Marlins v Cleveland Guardians - Game Two / Jason Miller/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation depth is being strained, but they could add some quality depth with this low-cost, recently DFA'd pitcher

The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation depth is on thin ice. While the starting five of Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, Rich Hill, Roansy Contreras, and Luis Ortiz is a solid mix, an injury will put the already thinned out rotation depth in serious trouble.

The Pittsburgh Pirates lost what looked to be two potential key rotation members for the 2023 season very early into the year. The first was JT Brubaker, who underwent Tommy John surgery before the season started. Mike Burrows followed with his own TJ surgery just weeks into the season. Now with Vince Velasquez out for an extended period of time, the Pirates are in a rock and a hard place, praying that no one else gets hurt. Their next option if a starting pitcher goes down is Quinn Priester, and while that is far from a terrible option, he’s not even on the 40-man roster yet.

However, the Bucs could find a quality depth option on the waiver wire right now in Zach Plesac. The Cleveland Guardians recently designated the right-handed pitcher for assignment. Although he’s clearly not going to take innings away from any of the current pitchers in the Pirate starting five, he’s the kind of pitcher that would be a nice fall back option in the event of an injury.

Plesac looked like another pitcher to come out of the Guardians' pitching factory. Between 2019 and 2020, Plesac pitched to a 3.32 ERA, 4.45 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP. Both his 21.3% strikeout rate and 6.8% walk rate hovered around league average, though he gave up more home runs than you’d like to see. Plesac had a 1.42 HR/9 rate and was below average in terms of exit velocity. Giving up hard hit baseballs at a below average rate when you’re a fly ball pitcher will lead to a high home run rate.

Still, Plesac certainly earned a spot in the Guardians’ rotation after 2020. But the last two seasons haven’t been pleasant for the right-hander. Plesac has combined for 274.1 innings, working to a 4.49 ERA, 4.59 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP. While he’s lowered his walk rate to just 6.2%, his strikeout rate has dipped to 17.2% while his HR/9 has maintained at 1.38-per-9. He’s gotten hit hard as opponents are managing a 90.1 MPH exit velocity and 42.1% hard hit rate.

So far in 2023, Plesac has pitched 21.1 innings, allowing 18 earned runs. He’s surrendered three long balls as well. His 91.4 MPH fastball velocity is the lowest of his career so far. Plesac has never been a flamethrower, but is a far cry from his peak average of 93.9 MPH in 2019. It also doesn’t help he is in the 9th percentile of fastball spin rate.

Not only is he a risk when it comes to performance, but his injuries have been caused by poor decisions on his end. Plesac punched the mound in late-2022, which broke his hand. This isn't the only poor decision he's made that has led to consequences. He was also a player who broke quarantine in the shortened 2020 campaign. 

So what reason would there be for the Pirates to consider Plesac? Even with his struggles and risk, he’s a perfectly adequate up-and-down no. 6 starting pitcher. This is something the Pirates desperately need right now. With Brubaker and Burrows out indefinitely, and an unknown timetable for Velasquez, they’re one injury away from being in serious trouble. Plesac comes with three minor league options remaining, so they don’t have to put him on the MLB roster. They can stash him away at Triple-A until he is needed.

Don’t take this as the Pirates should give Plesac a starting rotation job in an attempt to fix him. That’s not what I am saying here at all. But they are in a situation where they should take the risk on a low-cost flier to add depth to a thin starting rotation. Plesac wouldn’t take innings away from any important youngster, but you have to consider the Pirates currently don’t have an answer on the 40-man if there is an injury. Plesac might not be an ace, but can be the 6th starter the Pirates need.