Good pitching wins championships.
OK, I’m not breaking any new ground there. It’s one of baseball’s oldest adages. Championship teams do indeed have good pitching, though. Or, more specifically, good starting pitching.
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a championship team since 1992 when they won their third straight National League East title. Anywhere from poor-to-average starting pitching has contributed greatly to the franchise having just four winning records in the ensuing 30 seasons and a 54-66 mark this year.
The Pirates are in a full-scale rebuild and general manager Ben Cherington’s grand plan is to put the puzzle pieces together to form a team capable of winning a World Series.
However, if the Pirates are ever going to build a championship team, there is one area that is going to need a lot of work. They need more starting pitching and lots of it.
The Pirates currently have two starting pitchers who be counted on to pitch more than four innings, Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo. That’s it.
It is an alarming sign for any team to have such little pitching depth, even for one whose main goal now is to hold off the St. Louis Cardinals for fourth place in the NL Central.
In fact, the most troubling part of this season has been the Pirates’ inability to develop starting pitching.
These are the five pitchers Baseball America projected to make up the Pirates’ starting rotation in 2026 coming into this season.
Here is how the quintet has fared in 2023. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty.
Keller was selected to his first All-Star Game this season at age 27. However, he also gave up a home run to the Tampa Bay Rays’ Yandy Diaz in the Midsummer Classic in Seattle and perhaps that foreshadowed what was to come.
In six starts since the All-Star break, Keller is 0-4 with a 7.71 ERA. He was 9-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 19 starts during the first half.
If Keller is to become a true No. 1 starter – and that’s probably asking a little much – he can’t go through a sequence like the one coming out of the All-Star break when he gave up eight, six, two and eight runs in consecutive starts.
Contreras has shown the ability to succeed at the major-league. Evidence came when he finished April with three straight quality starts, including shutting out the Los Angeles Dodgers’ hard-hitting lineup for six innings.
However, Contreas was dropped from the rotation to the bullpen after allowing seven runs in 0.1 innings to the lowly Oakland Athletics on June 7. A month later, he was sent to the Pirates’ spring training facility in Bradenton, Fla., to basically rebuild his career.
Still 23 and now at Triple-A Indianapolis, Contreras has time to get his career back on track. However, this season has been a major setback.
Ortiz was impressive during a late-season callup last year but lost out to Oviedo for the last spot in the starting rotation in spring training.
The Pirates called Ortiz up to the majors in May, but he had a 4.86 ERA in 11 games (10 starts). Most alarming was that his stuff wasn’t nearly as overpowering as in 2022 with Ortiz managing just 34 strikeouts in 53.2 innings.
Much like Contreras, Ortiz still has time to regroup as he is 24. Also, much like Contreras, Ortiz is at Indy finishing a season that must be considered a step backward.
Priester was demoted to Indianapolis on Tuesday. Simply put, he was overmatched in the major leagues.
The 22-year-old had a 9.10 ERA in six starts for the Pirates along with a 1.92 WHIP in 28.2 innings. He’s too young to write off but it’s clear he needs a lot of work to become a successful big-league starting pitcher.
An average of less than five innings a start isn’t going to cut it.
One of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects, Burrows made two starts for Indianapolis in April and then underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery.
The 23-year-old almost assuredly would have made his major-league debut this season if healthy, considering the struggles of Contreras and Ortiz and JT Brubaker and Vince Velasquez having elbow surgery.
Now, Burrows probably won’t see the big leagues until the second half of the 2024 season or maybe even 2025.
Most pitchers go through ups and downs when they get to the major leagues. However, so many downs in one season give pause for concern about the Pirates’ long-term plan.