Who could replace Bailey Falter in the Pirates' rotation?

With Bailey Falter struggling in his 2024 debut, who could take over his role in the Pirates' rotation if he contiues to perform poorly?
Mar 5, 2024; Bradenton, Florida, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Quinn Priester (64)
Mar 5, 2024; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Quinn Priester (64) / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Bailey Falter’s first outing of the year for the Pittsburgh Pirates did not go well. He allowed six earned runs on three walks, including two home runs. One of the home runs he allowed was a grand slam. Falter also struggled mightily in Spring Training. While the Pirates will likely give Falter another start or two, the early results are not promising. Hopefully, they are keeping Falter on a short leash. But the Pirates have a handful of options which they could turn to if Falter keeps struggling.

The first one that’s going to come to mind is Paul Skenes. The first overall pick from last year, Skenes impressed in his Triple-A debut, throwing three perfect innings with five strikeouts. Even though Skenes will likely be up sooner rather than later, I don’t believe he’ll be the first player the Pirates turn to. Service time is a factor, but even looking past that, Skenes needs to stretch out more. His outing on Saturday was the first time he went more than two innings since his last College World Series start last June. Give him a couple more outings to build up his workload, and we’ll see him in Pittsburgh soon.

The next option is Quinn Priester. I thought Priester was going to break camp with the Bucs at the end of Spring Training and be in the Pirates’ rotation over Falter. Priester had solid numbers at Triple-A last season, pitching to a 4.00 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and 1.33 WHIP in a hitter friendly environment. He walked 10.2% of the batters he faced, but had a solid 25.3% K% and 0.50 HR/9. Priester is a ground ball machine and had a 54.4% GB%.

Preister struggled in his brief MLB time last year with a 7.74 ERA, 6.74 FIP, and 1.70 WHIP in 50 innings, but he looked solid during Spring Training. Priester’s 2024 debut at Indianapolis saw him reel off 5.2 innings with nine strikeouts, only one walk, hit, and earned run. The earned run scored after he was pulled from the game. It was a great start to his 2024 season, but even more promising was how hard he was throwing.

Five of Priester’s four pitches saw an uptick in velocity. The biggest increases were his four-seam fastball and slider. Priester’s fastball average of 94.7 MPH was a 1.9 uptick from last year, while his slider saw an uptick of 2.4 MPH. On top of gaining more velocity on his fastball, it had more riding life and horizontal break to it. In terms of velocity, spin rate, and vertical, and horizontal movement, he was very comparable to Minnesota Twins’ ace Pablo Lopez. Priester's increased slider velo is something he displayed in Spring Training and a pitch he looked like he reworked. His sinker (0.6 MPH increase) and curveball (0.2 MPH increase) also saw a slight step forward, although not nearly as dramatic as his four-seamer or his slider.

Priester would be my go-to choice right now, but the Pirates also have a couple of other options worth mentioning. One veteran pitcher they signed to a minor league deal was Eric Lauer. The Southpaw missed most of 2023 and struggled when he was able to pitch. But he pitched well in 2021 and 2022. Between the two seasons, Lauer pitched 277.1 innings, working to a 3.47 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 1.19 WHIP. Lauer struggled with home runs as he allowed 1.50 HR/9 on average but had a respectable 23.7% strikeout rate and 8.7% walk rate. But going from American Family Field, which has the 8th best home run park factor in MLB, to PNC, which has the second lowest home run park factor, could certainly help. Lauer lost a lot of velocity in 2023 but seems to have regained it. He only pitched in one Spring Training game, but his velocity was a lot closer to what it was in 2021 and 2022 than in 2023.

Another notable minor league signee was right-hander Domingo German. The former New York Yankees’ right-hander had a 4.54 ERA, 4.65 FIP, and 1.08 WHIP in 108.2 innings. German had an above-average 25.7% strikeout rate and 7.7% walk rate but struggled to limit home runs with a 1.66 HR/9. But German was much better at limiting home runs away from Yankee Stadium and a 17.1% HR/FB ratio displays possible future improvement. German also threw a no-hitter, but he’s had his fair share of off-field problems. The right-hander’s 2023 season was cut short due to issues with alcoholism that leaked into the clubhouse, causing issues there. German was also suspended in 2020 for a domestic violence case.

The Pirates could also move either Luis Ortiz or Roansy Contreras back to the rotation. Ortiz has gotten off to a great start to 2024 with four scoreless innings, a strikeout, and one walk (two more intentional walks). Contreras’ stuff had seen an uptick closer to what we saw from him in 2022, but he struggled with command.

The Pirates might let Ortiz and Contreras work multiple innings from the bullpen, but they might work a lot better in shorter outings rather than as a full-on starting pitcher.

Eventually, I think the Pirates will give Paul Skenes the rotation spot once he gets stretched out, but if Falter’s issues persist into the middle or late April, and Priester looks more like he did in Spring and his 2024 debut, he will get the call first. He’s already on the 40-man roster and is more stretched out than Skenes. Lauer and German may get a chance if there’s an injury, but in my opinion, the next in line to get some MLB starts is Quinn Priester.