The suspicions are now backed by facts.
It has long seemed that the Pittsburgh Pirates had a poor track record of developing pitchers. Baseball America’s research has proved it.
According to research by the publication’s editor-in-chief – and resident Pittsburgh Steelers fan – J.J. Cooper, the Pirates are the second-worst franchise at pitching development since the draft bonus pool system was instituted in 2012 by Major League Baseball. Only the Oakland Athletics have been worse.
The Pirates are last among the 30 franchises in ERA (5.03) and FIP (4.76) in the major leagues for pitchers who entered the organization over the last 12 seasons. They are 26th in innings pitched (2,619) and 29th in runs allowed/nine innings (5.45).
I’m no pitching coach, but that’s not very good.
The Pirates’ inability to develop pitching at the major-league level predates current general manager Ben Cherington. The organization seemed to lose its touch with homegrown pitchers right around the time the Pirates’ three-year run of postseason appearances ended in 2016.
However, the lack of development on the mound in Cherington’s first four years is a major disappointment. He has made many changes in both the player development and scouting departments but few young pitchers have been success stories.
The frustration continued last season with the case of Roansy Contreras. He was expected to be a cornerstone of the rotation for years to come but struggled so mightily in 2023 that he was sent from the major leagues down to extended spring training in early July.
Contreras never returned to the big leagues. While the Pirates continue to say the right things about Contreras, who is still just 24, they privately wonder if they can salvage his career without moving him to the bullpen.
However, the Pirates will get a mulligan when it comes to developing pitchers. Contreras is one of seven starting pitchers on the 40-man roster who are 25 or younger along with Luis Ortiz (25), Mike Burrows (25), Kyle Nicolas (24), Jackson Wolf (24), Braxton Ashcraft (24) and Quinn Priester (24).
Paul Skenes (21) and Jared Jones (23) are likely to begin the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.
Skenes was the first overall pick in last year’s draft and is ranked as the organization’s No. 1 prospect by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com. All three outlets have Jones as the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect.
Skenes is just 21 and Jones is 22.
Double-A Altoona will likely have three of the Pirates’ top prospects in its rotation in 2024 — 21-year-olds Bubba Chandler and Anthony Solometo and 22-year-old Thomas Harrington.
Baseball America has Chander at No. 2 and Solometo at No. 4 in their rankings of Pirates’ prospects and Harrington at No. 7.
That is an awful lot of young pitching talent, and it is a large part of the reason why the Pirates feel they are on the upswing.
Of course, not all those prospects will pan out. They never do.
Yet if the Pirates don’t hit on at least some in the group, it will likely be another GM’s task to try to get developing pitchers right.