The Pittsburgh Pirates finished the past season with two traditional starting pitchers while filling out the rest of the rotation with openers, bulk-inning relievers, and bullpen games.
That’s no way for a major-league team to be successful.
Now, comes word that one of those two starters is potentially facing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. And the fact that Johan Oviedo might be undergoing the knife is likely due in part to the Pirates’ lack of starting pitching.
Oviedo pitched 177.2 innings in 2023 in his first full season as a starter in the major leagues. The 25-year-old’s previous career high in innings as a professional was 146.2 in 2019 when he was in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system.
In the ensuing three seasons, Oviedo’s innings totals were 24.2 (in the pandemic-affected 2020 season), 116.2 and 117.1.
It is easy to second-guess the Pirates’ decision to have Oviedo increase his workload by 60.1 innings at a relatively young age. However, it was also not the Pirates’ original plan to push Oviedo to close to 180 innings and make 32 starts.
The Pirates felt they had little choice because Oviedo and Mitch Keller were their two reliable starters. Left-hander Bailey Falter and right-hander Andre Jackson also logged some innings, sometimes following openers and other times as starters who were on limited pitch counts.
Now, Oviedo has been experiencing elbow pain and it seems there is a chance – a significant one according to a source with knowledge of the situation – that he won’t be able to pitch next season or at the beginning of 2025.
So, who is to blame for this?
For starters, manager Derek Shelton and pitching coach Oscar Marin overworked Oviedo.
That is just not making a second guess more than a month after the fact. I wondered in September if the imaginary odometer on Oviedo’s right arm was about to flatline and was surprised he made five starts in the season’s final month.
Of course, Shelton didn’t have many options and general manager Ben Cherington must take the blame for that.
It is inexcusable for a major-league team to have just two full-time starting pitchers. Yes, the Arizona Diamondbacks made it to the World Series with three starters but that had a flukish feel considering their regular season record was 84-78.
Part of the Pirates’ lack of starters was due to bad luck. JT Brubaker blew out his elbow in the final days of spring training and the same fate befell Vince Velasquez in May.
However, some of the depth problems stemmed from poor performance.
Roansy Contreras regressed so badly in 2023 that he was sent to the minor leagues in early July and never returned despite previously being considered a potential rotation cornerstone. Rookie Luis Ortiz didn’t pitch as well as hoped.
The bottom line is the Pirates’ starting pitching depth was so thin that they couldn’t make it through the season. Oviedo might be paying the price.
Cherington admittedly has made acquiring pitchers the focal point of the Pirates’ winter plans. Meanwhile, Quinn Priester had some good moments during his first taste of the major leagues this year while prospects such as Paul Skenes, Jared Jones, Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler and Thomas Harrington are on the way.
“We’ve devoted more energy to the pitching early on in the offseason,” Cherington said last week during the MLB General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We’re excited about the future. We have some young starters who have a little bit more of a track record at the major league level, some of them haven’t.
“We think it’s an exciting group of young starting pitching that can form the nucleus of a good rotation. Not all of them are proven. Some of them are still growing and some of them might need more time in the minor leagues to start 2024. So, we definitely want to add to the rotation in terms of both quality and helping us win games early next year and beyond.”
It will be a challenge for Cherington because Keller is the only current lock for the 2024 rotation. The challenge will become even more daunting if Oviedo winds up on the operating table.