First Pitch: The Future of the Pittsburgh Pirates – Pitching Edition

Yesterday I looked at the present and future of the Pittsburgh Pirates with their position players. It was difficult to get a read on most positions, with a lot of talent in the system stacked at the shortstop position, and no clear answer as to how that will shake out.

Today we’ll look at the future of the pitching staff, and if you’re looking for something more clear cut, you’re not going to find it.

If I’m projecting out a 2021 rotation at the moment, it probably looks like this:

SP1 – Chris Archer

SP2 – Jameson Taillon

SP3 – Mitch Keller

SP4 – Joe Musgrove

SP5 – Trevor Williams

SP6 – Chad Kuhl

There is a lot of uncertainty with this group. Will the Pirates pick up Archer’s option? (Honestly, what else are they going to spend the money on?)

Will Jameson Taillon be effective as a starter after his second Tommy John surgery? (If anyone can have success after two Tommy John’s, it would be Taillon.)

Can Mitch Keller make the adjustment to the majors?

That last question is the key to the future.

Neal Huntington acquired a lot of pitching talent. By 2017, he had Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Keller waiting in the wings.

The problem is that, under Huntington, the Pirates didn’t properly develop any of that talent. This was no more obvious than when Cole left and immediately became the ace he was always projected to become. It became even more obvious when Glasnow left and finally started looking like an MLB starter, after the Pirates had relegated him to the bullpen. Taillon and Keller, meanwhile, have yet to live up to their potential in Pittsburgh.

The challenge for Ben Cherington will be finding a way to get the most out of the arms in the system, which is where Huntington’s system failed in a big way. I’m not sure how much success Oscar Marin can have with his inherited staff in a short time period, which is why the rotation looks very questionable the next few years.

Fortunately, there is talent in the system, especially lower in the system. 2019 first round pick Quinn Priester could be on the fastest track to the majors of the young pitchers. He’s joined by Tahnaj Thomas, Cody Bolton, and Brennan Malone, who are all hard throwing starters who could factor into future rotations. Guys like Braxton Ashcraft, Michael Burrows, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, Aaron Shortridge, and Santiago Florez could also factor into filling out future rotations.

On the bullpen side, the Pirates have plenty of hard throwing relief prospects. We saw one of those guys making his debut last night, with Blake Cederlind bringing the heat. Nick Mears, Cody Ponce, JT Brubaker, and Geoff Hartlieb are all promising relief prospects who have either performed well this year in the majors, or who have at least shown some of their potential. Add in guys like JC Flowers, Braeden Ogle, and the Pirates have the pieces for a good bullpen.

It’s all going to come down to development, which is where Huntington fell short, and where Cherington remains untested. More importantly, it’s going to come down to how quickly the Pirates can develop these guys.

I don’t see a good rotation in 2021, and it would be difficult to get a contending group in 2022. That would require Keller stepping up as a top of the rotation guy, and Taillon returning for his final year as a top of the rotation guy. There would still be a bridge between the start of the 2022 season, and when the younger guys are arriving, which is probably closer to 2023-2024.

If I’m looking for long-term hope from the Pirates’ pitching staff, I’d look at 2021 as an important development year in the majors for Keller. I’d look at 2023-24 as key years for the younger guys to arrive. And I’d hope for the best out of Archer, Taillon, Musgrove, Williams, and anyone else in 2021, hoping to deal them for more prospects who can arrive and help starting in that 2023-24 timeframe.

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth anniversary! This year we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Oneil Cruz. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


First Pitch