The Pirates have gone with a standard five man rotation the last few years, avoiding the recent trend of using the bullpen to creatively fill starting pitching slots. That is an approach that they should look into changing in 2021.
The Pirates didn’t have a good rotation in 2020. Their hopes in 2021 hinge on an unproven young player in Mitch Keller, an inconsistent starter in Joe Musgrove, and Jameson Taillon returning from his second Tommy John surgery. They could add someone to that group and they’d still have a lot of question marks in the rotation.
If you resign yourself to the idea that the rotation will be filled with question marks, then you might as well use one or two of those spots to answer a key question: Would the Pirates be better off with a bullpen approach from their rotation?
They certainly have the personnel. Combining two or three of Steven Brault, JT Brubaker, and Chad Kuhl for one time through the order each would probably lead to better results than the Pirates could hope to find from one starter on the open market.
Long-term, the Pirates have some prospects who might allow for five traditional starters. For now, they look like a team that would be better off getting creative, with personnel that would work better in the more creative roles.
Let’s take a look at the projected rotation for 2021 and beyond to see how they stack up.
Guaranteed Spots in 2021
Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon
Keller is going to get a chance to step up as a future leader of the rotation. Taillon will get a chance to bounce back to his pre-Tommy John self. Musgrove will get a chance to follow up on his 2020 results, assuming he remains with the team.
Fighting For a Spot in 2021
Steven Brault, JT Brubaker, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams
Brault would be in my rotation, with Brubaker and Kuhl fighting for one of the final spots, and Williams non-tendered. I could even see a nice bullpen trio of Brault, Brubaker, and Kuhl, with the Pirates adding another starter option from the outside and adding Cody Ponce to the group. That could give them enough to make up two rotation spots from guys who otherwise would be average back-of-the-rotation starters.
In any approach, I think the Pirates would be smart to add to the rotation from the outside. They’ve got a great platform for a free agent to come in, show his stuff, and become a potential trade chip at the deadline.
Prospects to Watch in 2021
I’m not sure if lower level guys like Quinn Priester or Tahnaj Thomas will arrive next season. I think the best prospect you can hope for in 2021 is Cody Bolton. He’s got a fastball that can hit upper 90s, along with a slider that can be above-average or plus. Bolton could wind up sticking in the rotation as early as the end of next season, potentially entering in an easier way as a multi-inning reliever on bullpen days (again, dreaming that the Pirates have such days).
Prospects to Watch Beyond 2021
The top guys in the system are Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas, and Brennan Malone. I could see Priester arriving by the end of 2022 on a fast track, as he’s a very advanced young starter. Thomas and Malone would be 2023 at the earliest, depending on how high up they start in 2021.
The 2024 rotation could look interesting, with the possibility of Mitch Keller, Quinn Priester, 2021 first overall pick Kumar Rocker, Cody Bolton, and potentially one or both of Thomas and Malone. That group could look very interesting mid-2023, with the possibility of debuts from Priester and Rocker, assuming the Pirates draft the latter.
Other guys to watch in the lower levels include Braxton Ashcraft, Michael Burrows, Max Kranick, and Travis MacGregor.