The Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitching depth is getting strained, and with the team improving, they could target Kyle Freeland to improve the roster in 2023 and beyond.
The Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitching depth is being strained. The Pirates are running low on depth with JT Brubaker and Mike Burrows set to miss the entire season and now Vince Velasquez having an injury scare. Sure, Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, and Rich Hill are a solid 1-4, and the Pirates also have Quinn Priester and Luis Ortiz stationed at Triple-A, but they’re definitely in the ‘danger zone’ in terms of options if something else were to happen.
But they are still a team that has made significant strides this year and is forming a coherent roster. Even if they don’t end up making a playoff spot this year, that still doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make a move to improve not just their roster this year but for the next few seasons as well.
On the other hand, the Colorado Rockies are in a tough situation. They have the second most losses in the National League. While they do have some notable prospects, they got nothing of note for major parts of their previous core, like Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, D.J. LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, or Jon Gray. One of the few remaining key players from their 2018 team that made the LA Dodgers play a game 163 for the NL West who is still of reasonable age, healthy, and performing well over the last few years is starting pitcher Kyle Freeland, who could end up on the trading block this summer, and a pitcher the Pirates should keep an eye on.
The back of Freeland’s baseball card isn’t too impressive, at least at first glance. Freeland hasn’t had an ERA under 4.30 since 2018. That’s also the last year he averaged less than one home run every nine innings. His FIP for the last three seasons is just 4.43, and he has a WHIP of 1.41 in that time as well. Given the options the Pirates currently have and the players they have in the minor leagues, Freeland seems like a 5th, maybe even 6th starter.
But don’t be fooled by Freeland’s surface numbers. The lefty has consistently had some of the largest home and away splits for pitchers. His career home ERA is 4.79, while his career away ERA is over a whole run lower at 3.75.
In 2022, Freeland owned an atrocious 6.00 ERA, 4.54 FIP, and 1.52 WHIP when pitching at Coors. However, when he pitched as a visitor, he had a 3.08 ERA, 4.27 FIP, and 1.30 WHIP. Batters have a .481 slugging percentage against him in Coors but a .404 slugging percentage when he pitches in away ballparks throughout his career. To put into perspective what that looks like, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Anthony Rizzo both had a .480 slugging percentage last season, and Tommy Edman had a .400 slugging percentage in comparison.
After adjusting for Coors Field, Freeland has posted a below-average ERA just once in his career, per ERA+, and that came in 2019. 2019 and 2022 are the only two years Freeland had an ERA+ below 110. The only worry is that Freeland has never been looked upon fondly among ERA estimator statistics. However, he has consistently overperformed his expected and predictive numbers, so there’s a good chance he could continue to do so.
So far this season Freeland has a 3.76 ERA (136 ERA+) and 1.10 WHIP, albeit a 5.00 FIP. That’s mainly because he has an HR/9 of 1.64. Freeland’s 17.2% strikeout rate isn’t out of the ordinary for him, but a 5.3% walk rate would be a career-best if he were to keep it up over the course of a full season. His 3.25 K:BB ratio would also be a career-best. As is typical with Freeland, his home numbers (4.10 ERA, .788 OPS) are significantly worse than his away numbers (3.00 ERA, .386 OPS).
If the Rockies do decide to shop Freeland, he will probably be one of the more sought-after starting pitchers on the trade market. Not only has Freeland shown he is a great pitcher outside of Coors Field, but he is also very affordable, with many years of control left. Freeland signed an extension that will keep him under contract through 2026 at the latest. The left-hander will be paid $15 million in ‘24, $16 million in 2025-2026, then has a vesting option for 2027.
These two factors likely mean the Rockies have a high asking price and aren’t willing to make any significant changes in said asking price. But Freeland is the kind of pitcher the Pirates should at least keep tabs on. He’s a consistently decent starting pitcher who comes with more than one year of control remaining.