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Perrotto: State of Pirates’ Rotation Could Lead to ‘Cannonball’ Keller

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Pittsburgh Pirates, Mitch Keller

Ed Morris, also known by Cannonball, is the most durable pitcher in Pittsburgh Pirates’ history.

Morris pitched a franchise-record 581 innings in 1885. The 5-foot-7 left-hander followed with 555.1 innings in 1886, 317.2 innings in 1887 and 470 innings in 1888.

No words on how many protein shakes old Cannonball drank between starts.

Current-day Pirates ace Mitch Keller logged 194.1 innings last season. That may not have come closer to Morris’ levels, but it was the eighth-most in the major leagues, giving Keller ironman status in this modern era of pitching.

The way the Pirates’ starting rotation is constituted, Keller might need to throw 581 innings in 2024. Yes, the situation is that bad.

Keller is now the only pitcher who is assured a spot in the rotation when next season begins. The Pirates’ worse fears have been confirmed and Johan Oviedo will indeed need Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, which will sideline him for the entire 2024 season.

General manager Ben Cherington’s top priority this offseason is to find starting pitching. The urgency becomes even stronger following the Oviedo news.

If the season started tomorrow – and thankfully for the Pirates it doesn’t – this would be a best guess for a rotation: Keller, Luis Ortiz, left-hander Bailey Falter, Quinn Priester and Roansy Contreras.

Yikes.

Keller, of course, had a breakout season this year. He was selected to the All-Star Game for the first time in his five-year career while going 13-9 with a 4.21 ERA in 32 starts.

However, none of the four other projected starters has ever spent a full season in the major leagues. And they have combined for just 26 wins in the big leagues.

Yes, I fully understand that wins aren’t the best way to judge a starting pitcher. Yet the low number of victories is unsettling.

Just as unsettling are the career major-league ERAs of the foursome – Ortiz (4.73), Falter (4.76), Contreras (4.87) and Priester (7.74). Before we anoint Keller as a contender for the National League Cy Young Award, it should be noted his career ERA is 4.71 through five seasons, though it is 4.08 in the last two years.

The best part about the projected rotation, though, is there is some upside as Keller is 27 years old, Falter is 26, Ortiz and Contreras are both 24 and Priester is 23.

The Pirates should also have four prospects in the rotation at Triple-A Indianapolis. That group will likely include Paul Skenes, the first overall pick in this year’s amateur draft, along with Jared Jones, Kyle Nicolas and left-hander Jackson Wolf.

Braxton Ashcraft, added to the 40-man roster earlier this month, figures to begin next season at Double-A Altoona with the expectation he could end it in the major leagues. Other starting prospects likely to start 2024 with the Curve are lefty Anthony Solometo and righties Bubba Chandler, Thomas Harrington and Po-Yu Chen.

The future looks better but Cherington has his work cut out between now and the start of spring training. He needs to add starters whether it be by trades, free agent signings, waiver claims or, perhaps, even abduction.

Otherwise, Mitch Keller might be known as Cannonball Keller by the end of next season.

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