Will Quinn Priester make the Pirates' Opening Day roster?

Miami Marlins v Pittsburgh Pirates
Miami Marlins v Pittsburgh Pirates / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

Quinn Priester, a former Top 100 prospect according to Baseball America and MLB.com, struggled in his first year in the Majors. Has he shown enough in Spring Training to make a play for the Opening Day roster?

Over ten games (eight starts) in 2023, Priester finished in the bottom 10th percentile in pitching run value, xERA, xBA, strikeout rate, and hard-hit rate. Much of this trouble stemmed from his ineffective fastball. Priester’s four-seamer tended to zip right into the heart of the plate; 30.8% of his fastballs cruised through the middle of the zone, yielding a .718 wOBA.

Priester’s four-seamer failed to live up to MLB standards. It lagged behind the league average velocity by 1.6 mph. Although his fastball averaged a vertical break of 19 inches (3.4 inches more than the league average in 2023), it averaged only two inches of horizontal break. The downward movement did help Priester land in the 89th percentile in groundball rate, but his fastball didn’t have the run to consistently fool batters.

Why, then, was Priester such a highly regarded prospect? His breaking stuff. He entered the Pirates’ system with a plus-curve with a decent sinker and changeup. Prior to 2023, he tweaked his slider, which has become the most impressive pitch in his arsenal. Those pitches still turn heads, and they’ve been particularly effective in early Grapefruit League action. In fact, they may serve as replacements for Priester’s lackluster four-seamer, which he has thrown just 14 times in Spring Training.

Priester’s slider now looks more like a cutter, according to MLB.com’s Alex Stumpf. He has picked up velocity and used the pitch more regularly. In his first three Spring Training outings, the slider has accounted for 35.6% of his pitches; he used the pitch 23.7% of the time in 2023. In the zone, the pitch seems to drop rather than dive, but against right-handed batters, the pitch can tail off the edge of the plate.

It seems as though the Pirates and Priester have taken steps to replace his lackluster four-seamer with a combination of the cut-slider and sinker.

His sinker averages about 93 mph, so it provides a zippy counterpoint to the 88 mph slider and 81 mph curve. Priester, though, has struggled with command of the sinker throughout Spring Training, and the arm-side run has caused it to drift up-and-in on right-handed batters. Nine of Priester’s 36 sinkers this spring have been a ball. Given the dramatic movement of his other two primary pitches (the slider and the curve) and his status as a groundball pitcher, he’ll need more consistent control.

Regardless of the tweaks to his slider and his near abandonment of the fastball, Priester’s path back to the Majors may be beyond his control. The ascendancy of Jared Jones has been the talk of Bradenton. The Pirates’ No. 3 prospect, according to MLB.com, has dazzled in his Grapefruit League appearances. You would be hard-pressed to make a case for Priester to fill a rotation spot that could go to Jones, who has some of the best pure stuff in the system.

At this point, it seems as though Priester’s developments have been too little too late to crack the Opening Day roster. These adjustments, particularly the move away from his fastball, could pay off in the long run. Priester still has Minor League options available and a couple of months in Indianapolis may be exactly what the young pitcher needs to become an effective Major League arm.