Even after adding two veteran left-handers, the Pittsburgh Pirates still have two rotation holes to fill.
Newcomers Marco Gonzales and Martin Perez will be counted on heavily in 2024 to follow Mitch Keller in the rotation. The Pirates are also hoping for further ascension from Keller, who pitched in his first All-Star Game this year.
Who will fill out the rotation remains to be seen. Most likely it will be a scenario in which the Pirates add one more pitcher from outside the organization and the other starter will come from within.
Among the potential internal candidates are left-hander Bailey Falter and right-handers Roansy Contreras, Max Kranick and Quinn Priester.
One internal option who many Pirates fans are clamoring for to start next season with the major-league club is Paul Skenes. The Pirates drafted the mustachioed right-hander first overall in this year’s amateur draft from LSU and many scouts and analysts believe he is ready to pitch in the big leagues despite logging just 6.2 innings in five minor-league starts in 2023.
Yet general manager Ben Cherington makes it sound unlikely that Skenes will be on the opening-day roster.
“We’re not ruling anything out,” Cherington said. “I just think it’s really important … he’s barely touched professional baseball. It’s his first professional offseason. We just have a lot more to learn, and he has a lot more to learn, before we get to that decision.
“In his particular case, what’s best for him, what’s best for the Pirates may marry up, and that’s the goal, that they marry up. What date that means he appears in the big leagues for the first time, I honestly don’t know. I’m not going to try to make that decision right now. We don’t have to make that decision right now. Right now, what he needs to do is have the offseason where he puts himself in position to have the spring training he needs, the April he needs and on and on.
“As we go with that, it will become more clear when it makes sense,” Cherington continued. “We need to optimize the entirety of Paul Skenes’ time with the Pirates and not like a specific date in 2024.”
Pirates manager Derek Shelton was asked if he anticipated Skenes having an impact on the major-league club in 2024? He, too, wasn’t ready to give a definite answer but made it sound like Skenes will almost certainly be headed to the minor leagues to start the season.
“I think when Skenes is ready to come to the big leagues, then we will do that,” Shelton said. “But I think the other thing that’s really important is we’re talking about a kid that’s really talented. But he’s never pitched on five days (of rest), he’s never pitched on six days. So, the trials and tribulations of the major-league season or of a minor-league season are really important. We have to have those growing pains first before we can consider him to be part of the major-league team.
The Pirates will have many other starting pitching prospects on the verge of reaching the major leagues.
Priester made eight starts and two relief appearances last season for the Pirates but retains his rookie eligibility. Right-hander Kyle Nicolas pitched in relief four times late in the year.
Left-hander Jackson Wolf and right-hander Jared Jones figure to be in Triple-A Indianapolis’ rotation to start next season along with probably Skenes, Priester and Nicolas. Double-A Altoona’s starters will likely be lefty Anthony Solometo and righties Braxton Ashcraft, Bubba Chandler, Thomas Harrington and Po-Yu Chen.
Yet the Pirates aren’t likely to rush those pitchers to the major leagues any faster than they will Skenes.
“I think we have to be very smart,” Shelton said. “I think we have to resist the urge to rush guys before they’re ready just because what our need is. We also have to weigh what their need is. We have to make sure that they’re ready to come to the big leagues.
“I think as we have seen with any major-league player, coming to the big leagues, it’s hard. Just because you’re a prospect doesn’t mean automatically when you step in you’re going to be able to pitch or hit at that level. We have to make sure that we do our due diligence and make sure they’re ready.”
Sounds like we’ll see Skenes and many of those other prospects in Pittsburgh later than sooner.