On January 24, 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees in exchange for four prospects, namely Roansy Contreras, Maikol Escotto, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Miguel Yajure. At the time, it was widely reported Yajure was the key to the trade. Yajure was considered the “most advanced” by Pirates general manager Ben Cherington. Yajure was expected to compete for a job in the starting rotation in 2021. But when Cherington told mlb.com he believed Contreras could be a starter for the Pirates in 2021, it raised more than a few eyebrows. After all, Contreras was only 21 years old and had never pitched above single-A. He didn’t pitch at all in 2020, when there was no minor league baseball due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think given the performance there, given what he’s done the last year to continue growth, he’s on the roster now,” Cherington said at the time. “Likely needs some more development time, but he’s someone who we’re really encouraged by. We think he has a chance to be a starting pitcher and be in that next wave of pitching depth.”
Now this reads like the understatement of the century.
Rookies the big story
As another losing baseball season winds down and Pittsburgh sports fans have largely turned their attention to football, the progress of rookies Contreras and Oneil Cruz has been the Pirates’ big story. Cruz has garnered most of the attention, understandably so. He’s playing every day and lighting up Statcast seemingly on a daily basis. Even during Friday’s gutsy performance in an 8-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, when Contreras gave up just one run, four hits and two walks, Cruz stole the spotlight again, with three hits, including a double and a triple.
Taking care of business
Meanwhile, Contreras quietly goes about his business, giving his team quality innings and a chance to win. After a tough loss on June 26 at Tampa Bay, where he surrendered only one run to the Rays, his record stood at 2-1 with a 2.76 ERA. Then there were a July 1 disaster against the Milwaukee Brewers and a July 7 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
At that point, it was decided to shut him down for a bit. He was sent to triple-A Indianapolis on paper, then for real to build him back up after the layoff. The intent all along was to get Contreras back to Pittsburgh. The move was made out of caution. In 2021, Contreras pitched 61 innings, 58 with Indianapolis and three with Pittsburgh, after not pitching at all in 2020. He now sits at 113-2/3 combined major and minor league innings pitched in 2022. Cherington and manager Derek Shelton want to be careful with Contreras’s workload. So if the move was a head-scratcher to Pirates observers, it’s obvious Cherington and Shelton see Contreras as a valuable asset and are trying to walk the fine line between keeping him healthy while also giving him necessary game experience.
Since returning to Pittsburgh on August 17, Contreras has started five games, pitching 29-1/3 innings and yielding eight runs. His record is only 2-2 over that period due to lack of support. Four of those games were against winning teams in contention for playoff spots. The other was against a Boston Red Sox team that finds itself in last place but remains dangerous offensively. Throw in the July 7 game and over his last six starts, Contreras has a 2.29 ERA over 35-1/3 innings. If the average innings per start don’t exactly conjure up memories of Jack Morris, keep in mind the Pirates are trying to be careful with the young pitcher and Shelton’s system relies heavily on the bullpen once the starter has gone through the lineup twice.
Contreras sports a four-seam fastball he throws 49.8 percent of the time at an average speed of 95.8 MPH. His slider sits at 84.3 MPH on average and its usage is at 31.9 percent. Thus, he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher, usually not a recipe for major-league success. However, the difference in speed between the two pitches, which is higher than the major-league average for starters, enables him to keep batters off balance and remain effective. As if that’s not enough, his arsenal also includes a curveball and a changeup to give the hitters a couple more weapons with which to concern themselves. The curveball has an astounding 24.8 percent called-strike percentage and effectively freezes the batter whenever a strike is urgently needed. The physical tools are nice but Contreras is also drawing praise for his poise and maturity on the mound.
As noted, it’s been yet another dismal baseball season in Pittsburgh. Cherington will surely be looking for ways to improve the team for 2023. The major-league roster has few untouchables. In my mind, there are only five — David Bednar, Contreras, Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds. The long-term deal inked by Hayes this season, along with rumors that the Pirates are negotiating to do the same with Reynolds, has raised hopes among the less-cynical Pirates fans that — finally — ownership just might be starting to understand the importance of retaining some of its stars. Working on keeping Contreras around for a while would be a positive step. We haven’t seen much of Yajure yet. It’s Contreras who shows all the makings of a staff ace. If surrounded by a good team, he could do for the Pirates what John Candelaria or Doug Drabek did for them over long periods of years.