Triple-A Indianapolis should have a strong, deep pitching staff ready to bolster the Pittsburgh Pirates when the 2023 season begins
Entering the upcoming season, the Pittsburgh Pirates' strongest minor league affiliate to open the 2023 campaign is their Triple-A team. The Indianapolis Indians boast some impressive prospects, with the likes of Matt Gorski, Nick Gonzales, Malcolm Nuñez, and Endy Rodriguez making up some of the lineup.
Their supporting cast could include the likes of Jared Triolo, Connor Scott, Matt Fraizer, and Carter Bins, as other noteworthy minor leaguers. Their lineup and position player depth is significant, but what's even better is their pitching staff.
Quinn Priester is arguably the Pirates' best pitching prospect. The organization's 2019 first-round pick worked to a 3.29 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP. Priester's strength is inducing ground balls, posting a 50.6% ground ball rate last seasin, the third straight year he had a GB% above 50%. But he also had a decent 23.6% strikeout rate and 8% walk rate. Priester's numbers inflated by his last and next-to-last start, where he allowed 11 earned runs on two home runs and seven walks in just eight innings. Aside from that outing, he had a 2.41 ERA, a 0.44 HR/9 rate, and a 6.9% walk rate.
Priester works in the mid-90s with his four-seamer and sinker. He also throws a slider that he's greatly improved since arriving in pro ball and a curveball that is among the best of its kind. He also tosses a changeup, which he is using more often, but still needs improvement. On the plus side, it does project as average. Priester consistently has shown solid command and keeps walks down. He isn't the top command pitcher in the system, but he has posted decent walk rates in the past handful of years and has improved since arriving in the majors.
If Priester isn't the Pirates' best pitching prospect, then it's flamethrowing right-hander Luis Ortiz. Ortiz pitched 124.1 innings in the minor leagues, working to a 4.56 ERA, 4.40 FIP, and 1.14 WHIP. Ortiz's numbers aren't impressive but has some promising underlying numbers. Ortiz had a 27.1% strikeout rate with a walk rate of just 7.5%. Where Ortiz struggled the most was home runs. He had a 1.45 HR/9 rate, but with a strong 47.8% ground ball rate and 17.4% HR/FB ratio, Ortiz shouldn't face many more home run troubles in the future.
Ortiz made his debut late last year, giving the Pirates a handful of good outings in September. While he bombed his last start, he showed a ton of talent. Ortiz displayed a fastball that hit triple-digits with an outstanding slider. He also throws a changeup, but it's an average pitch at best. Ortiz has consistently shown an ability to induce soft contact, and his major league debut was nothing different. Even with his poor final outing of 2022, he held opponents to just an 86.1 MPH exit velocity and 31% hard-hit rate.
It's easy for Mike Burrows to get overshadowed by Priester and Ortiz. Burrows had a poor 4.01 ERA but a solid 3.29 FIP and 1.21 WHIP. Burrows continued to show an ability to strikeout batters at an above-average rate with a 28.2% strikeout rate. This also came with a 7.9% walk rate and 0.76 HR/9. Like Priester, Burrows also bombed his stats with one start. Going into his final outing of 2022, he had a 3.46 ERA, 3.11 FIP, and HR/9 of 0.67.
Burrows has always had an outstanding fastball and curveball. Both have elite spin rates and movement. It would all come down to the development of his changeup, which has come a very long way. Burrows's changeup is well above average and a very usable offering after projecting as a work in progress just a few years ago.
Kyle Nicolas is coming off a very under-the-radar 2022 campaign. In 90.2 innings, Nicolas worked to a 3.97 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 1.30 WHIP. Where Nicolas excelled was limiting home runs and inducing strikeouts. He had a 25.9% strikeout rate and an HR/9 of 0.89. The 12.1% walk rate was a bit worrying, but he worked around the outs. These were solid numbers, but he was bogged down by one start, specifically his third one of the year. He allowed eight earned runs on four home runs in just two innings. Outside of this one game, Nicolas had a 3.25 ERA and 0.51 HR/9.
Nicolas has an above-average fastball that sits in the mid-90s. His best pitch is arguably his slider, which many see as a potential 60-grade offering. His curveball has also developed into a solid third pitch and projects above average. The right-hander occasionally throws a changeup, but it's a well below-average pitch and one he rarely relies on. Command has been an issue for Nicolas, but he's seemingly improved last season.
The Pirates have to be doing something right if Carmen Mlodzinski is only the fifth-best starter at Triple-A Indy. In 105.1 innings, the former competitive balance pick worked to a 4.78 ERA and 1.41 WHIP but a solid 3.77 FIP. He had an above-average 24.1% strikeout rate and an 8.7% walk rate, along with a 0.85 HR/9. Mlodzinski was both inconsistent and ran into some poor luck, with a .334 batting average on balls in play.
Mlodzinski throws three average or better offerings. His fastball, which sits low-mid-90s is above average, as is his curveball. His changeup projects as average, though his command projects as below average. Mlodzinski needs to find some consistency next year, but he could be a solid starting pitcher for the Pirates' future.