The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of young arms at Triple-A and it seems they can't get here fast enough to replace struggling veterans
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching hasn’t gone as planned. Age seems to be catching up to what seemed like an ageless Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez is pitching about as you’d expect him to. Although Hill came into the season with the expectation as serving as a serviceable veteran left-hander, Velasquez hasn’t posted a league average or better ERA since 2016, with an ERA+ below 90 in five of the last six years. The Pirates do have some young guys, but it seems they can’t get here fast enough.
It’s not as if there isn’t any talent in the upper levels of the minor leagues. Quinn Priester may not have had a great first outing in 2023, but the talent is undeniably there. Luis Ortiz made significant strides in 2022 and made a great first impression in his first game of the year. Mike Burrows may have recently been pulled from a game early, but like Ortiz, he’s been shooting up prospect lists the last two seasons.
Ortiz, Preister, and Burrows aren’t the only potential options that could either pitch multiple innings out of the Pirate bullpen, or start some games. Carmen Mlodzinski has started the year in the bullpen but has started plenty of games before. The same thing as Cody Bolton, who started 14 games in 2022. Kyle Nicolas has been trending in the right direction. Sure, he’s at Altoona, but Double-A arguably has better competition than Triple-A. Many talented pitchers spend very little time at Triple-A before their big league debut.
At this point, stretching out Bolton or Mlodzinski as a starting pitcher once again can’t be worse than Velasquez. Velasquez has consistently been 15% or worse than the league average pitcher, in terms of ERA. If Velasquez's 82 ERA+ the last five seasons is the bar, then I am fully confident that Bolton or Mlodzinski can surpass that. That means they only have to be 17% worse than the league average pitcher to surpass Vince.
Although the back-end of the starting rotation is worrisome, some of the young relievers could replace a few of the major league bullpen arms. It was surprising that Duane Underwood Jr. was tendered a contract this off-season, let alone still on the big league roster. Chase De Jong only seems to perform when given a low-leverage situation,
It’s not as if the Pirates have no decent minor league relievers. Yerry De Los Santos showed some talent in 2022 and is at Triple-A. Tyler Samaniego is a potential left-handed option. Tahnaj Thomas is a flamethrower who sharpened up his command last season. J.C. Flowers has one of the best breaking balls in the system, and Nick Dombkowski could fill in Chase De Jong’s role, but with more potential.
Sure, the season just kicked off, but neither Velasquez, De Jong, nor Underwood Jr. is going to make a positive impact on the Pirates this year. The pitching situation will get better once some of the young guys start making their way to the big leagues. The Pirates should already start considering calling up some of the relief prospects. Either way, we’ll just have to suffer some poor Velasquez starts until then.