Even though he may start the season in the minors, Johan Oviedo should be nowhere but the Pirate starting rotation when the 2023 season kicks off
When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded pitcher José Quintana to their division rival St. Louis Cardinals last July, the main piece the team received in return was right-handed pitcher Johan Oviedo. When Oviedo was acquired there was some debate surrounding if his best fit in the majors was in the bullpen or the starting rotation. However, last September, he began to answer that question.
While it was a small sample size, Oviedo made seven starts for the Pirates last September and looked every bit the part of a MLB starting pitcher. Oviedo pitched 30 innings in his seven Pirate starts, posting a 3.23 ERA and a 3.47 FIP. While his 11.9% walk rate was high, he posted a 20.9% strikeout rate and just one home run (0.29 HR/9). He also limited opposing batters to just a .199 batting average.
Oviedo showed his promise as a major league quality starting pitcher in these starts. He flashed that he could very well be a building block in the Pirate starting rotation moving forward. At worst, he would likely be a great reliever for the Bucs. That said, he needs to begin the season in the team's starting rotation.
For a large portion of the offseason it seemed like this would be a foregone conclusion. Even after the team signed Vince Velasquez, there was still an unquestioned spot in the rotation for Oviedo. However, that may have changed when veteran Rich Hill was signed.
Hill, along with Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras are locked into the team's Opening Day starting rotation. That leaves Oviedo, Velasquez, and JT Brubaker battling for the final two spots. While the Pirates may very well go with Velasquez and Brubaker, likely pushing Oviedo to the rotation at Triple-A Indianapolis, this would be a mistake.
First off, at this point in their careers it is obvious that both Velasquez and Brubaker are better suited to be relief pitchers than starting pitchers in the majors. So moving one of them to the bullpen could improve both the team's starting rotation and bullpen.
Second, Oviedo earned a rotation spot last September. Also, as mentioned above, he could be part of the team's starting rotation long-term. This should absolutely be a factor here as well. Ultimately, the best way for Oviedo to continue to improve and prove if he is a long-term rotation piece or not is to be making starts in the majors and to be pitching against major league hitters.
Too many times in the past we have seen the Pirates roll with the veterans for Opening Day jobs and roster spots over the young players with more upside and a higher ceiling. This season they need to avoid making this mistake with Oviedo, Brubaker, Velasquez, and the starting rotation. While all three should be on the team's Opening Day roster, Oviedo needs to be in the starting rotation.
Last season Oviedo limited opposing batters to an average exit velocity of 87.3 MPH and a 6.2% barrel rate, both of which are below league average for a hitter. His slider held opponents to a .343 slugging percentage to go with a 33.8% whiff rate and his curveball produced a .111 slugging and 24.3% whiff rate. Opponents failed to record a hit off of any of the 54 changeups he threw, while the pitch had a strong 40.0% whiff rate. His four-seamed fastball produced a .402 slugging percentage against, not terrible by any means for a four-seamer, and ranked in the 85th percentile of baseball in fastball velocity.
All of that is the makeup of a pitcher built for success in the majors. Now, it's time to see what Oviedo can do when given the opportunity to start the season in the majors and be put in position to log a full season's worth of starts.