Pitching has become an issue for the Pirates

Thought to be a strength in 2023 with the expected improvement by some young pitchers and the signing of some veteran hurlers, pitching has suddenly become a problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As I write this, they’ve dropped the first four games of a critical stretch against National League Central Division rivals.

The good

Mitch Keller was expected to emerge as a staff ace this year, and with the exception of a couple bumps in the road, has lived up to expectations. In 14 starts, Keller has a record of 8-2 with a 3.41 ERA, 1.115 WHIP, 3.26 FIP, 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4.39 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s become, not only a staff ace, but an elite pitcher who deserves consideration for the All-Star Game. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the good news ends there as far as starting pitching is concerned.

The Bucs’ bullpen features a stellar late-inning crew of David Bednar, another potential All-Star, Colin Holderman, Dauri Moreta and Rule 5 draftee Jose Hernandez. The other bullpen spots have been, to use my Dad’s favorite expression, nothing to write home about. Wil Crowe, a reliable workhouse, has been on the 60-day injured list since April with a shoulder issue. That certainly hasn’t helped.

The bad and the ugly

Early in the season, starter Vince Velasquez showed the inconsistency that had become his trademark over his career. However, he eventually settled in and delivered four strong starts during which he surrendered only four earned runs, going 3-1. He left his May 4 start in Tampa Bay after four innings with elbow discomfort, landing on the injured list. Velasquez returned on May 27 in Seattle, only to have the elbow flare up again after two rough innings. He had season-ending surgery on June 9, a tough break for him and the Pirates.

Roansy Contreras, 23, is a starter who flashed staff-ace ability in 2022. In 2023, his second full season, he’s struggled, with a record of 3-6, 6.55 ERA and 1.595 WHIP. He was ticketed for the bullpen to work out his issues. But when Velasquez went on the injured list the first time, the Pirates, with no other viable options, kept Contreras in the rotation. That decision was a disaster. On June 7 against the Oakland Athletics at PNC Park, Contreras faced nine batters in the first inning, retiring only one and surrendering five runs before being removed in favor of Rob Zastryzny, who proceeded to issue two bases-loaded walks and put the Pirates in a deep 7-0 hole.

Up comes Bido

Manager Derek Shelton later announced that Contreras was returning to the bullpen. This time, that decision didn’t change with Velasquez’s second trip to the injured list. To take Velasquez’s place in the rotation, the Pirates called up Osvaldo Bido, 27, to make his major-league debut in Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday. For Bido, it was a good outing. A high pitch count limited him to four innings, but over that time he surrendered just one run on four hits, striking out six, walking three and leaving with a 5-1 lead. Strangely, Shelton made the puzzling decision to relieve Bido with Contreras. It took Contreras less than two innings to give up the lead, resulting in a demoralizing 10-6 loss.

Could an Angel have saved them?

Why Contreras in that situation? If he wasn’t deemed good enough to start the game, why bring him in to protect the lead? A better choice would have been the recently recalled Angel Perdomo, who has pitched well, albeit in a small sample size, and got three quick outs on 13 pitches in the seventh inning. Perdomo in the fifth and sixth innings, followed by the Pirates’ usual late crew, would have made more sense. With a big lead in a road game against a division rival, the manager needs to go with his best to make sure his team comes away with a win. Contreras should be ironing out his pitching problems in mop-up situations. If I were a betting man, I’d wager on Contreras having a good major-league career. But right now I see an unconfident young pitcher.

The current state of the rotation

Veteran Rich Hill, 43, signed to stabilize the rotation and provide some veteran leadership, has been inconsistent. He’s 6-6 with a 4.31 ERA and has pitched only 77-and-one-third innings in 14 starts. Speaking of critical road games against division rivals, at Milwaukee on Friday with the Pirates battling the Brewers for first place, Hill walked four in the first inning and gave up three runs. The Brewers survived a late-inning surge by the Pirates to win, 5-4.

Looking at the Pirates’ starting rotation as it stands now, only Keller is reliable. Hill, Johan Oviedo and Luis Ortiz have been inconsistent, although Oviedo has been a little better of late. Kudos to Bido for his strong outing on Monday. But the reality is 27-year-old rookies rarely pan out over the long run. There’s nothing in his minor league record to suggest Bido will be an exception.

What about help from the minor leagues? The Pirates’ top pitching prospect, Quinn Priester, is expected in Pittsburgh at some point this season. With triple-A Indianapolis, he’s 7-3 but with a 4.29 ERA. He also has a 22.5 percent strikeout rate. There’s anecdotal evidence to the effect that he’s been a bit of a hard-luck pitcher this season, too. A rough May 27 outing, where he gave up eight runs and six walks in one-and-two-thirds innings, may have spooked the Pirates when they were considering who to bring up. Mike Burrows, another top prospect, was expected to be promoted to the big league this year, too, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in April.

An interesting rookie

The bullpen recently suffered a big blow when Holderman went to the injured list, soon followed by Zastryzny. Thus continues the shuttling of relief pitchers back and forth from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh. This time, an intriguing call-up is Carmen Mlodzinski, 24, the 31st overall selection in the 2020 draft who has begun to thrive in the bullpen in Indianapolis. This season, he has a 3.16 ERA and a strong 27.2 strikeout rate. It will be interesting to see whether his minor league success translates to the majors. Incidentally, there’s no truth to the rumor that after the season, Mlodzinski and Zastryzny will be appearing on Wheel of Fortune to buy a vowel.

The Pirates currently sit in second place in the division, a half-game out of first. Pirates fans are a grumpy lot, understandably so, and Shelton is a frequent target of their ire. With the exception of Wednesday night in Chicago, I personally have had no issues with his tactical decisions this season. In any event, if Shelton can keep the Bucs in contention all season with such patchwork pitching, he’ll deserve to be the league’s Manager of the Year, critics be damned.

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