I like Johan Oviedo as a Pirates starting pitcher. He has been way more than anyone could have ever expected in 2023. He was a 2 WAR pitcher. He was able to throw 177 innings of quality baseball. He was also one of only two reliable Pirates starters from April to September. I do not want to make this article sound like I am dumping on Johan because I genuinely believe his arm is a part of the Pirates’ future. That being said, Oviedo is not an all-star. Oviedo is a good backend pitcher for a contending team, and most of the playoff-bound teams we saw this season would have put Oviedo in as their 4th or 5th pitcher without a second of hesitation. But this is the problem that Oviedo possibly missing out on 2024 shines a light on; the Pirates’ talent levels are so low that a good back-end rotation arm missing out on an entire season is a disastrous blow. Which should never be the case so far into a general manager’s tenure.
The Pirates are currently embarking on their 5th season under the Ben Cherington regime, which is supposed to be our first truly competitive year. The Pittsburgh faithful have endured unwatchable baseball and players like Miguel Del Pozo and Josh VanMeter in the hopes that this rebuild Cherington has orchestrated will lead to some winning teams. If we assume Oviedo is out for the entirety of 2024(almost certain since Tommy John Surgery is on the table), the Pirates currently have a single starting pitcher in the rotation that you would feel confident throwing for an entire season. I do not think it’s controversial to say that any team with a hope of competing for a playoff spot does not have this problem. If the Twins, for example, lost Johan Oviedo for an entire season it would be a definite setback for sure. However, the Twins would be able to replace him and still have 3 more starters in their rotation to depend on. To understand why Oviedo is such a hard blow, we must look closely at the Pirates’ development of their young talented pitchers and whether or not it’s been a successful formula.
I touched on this in my Henry Davis article, but I am very down on the direction of the development of talent within the Pirates organization. While I used the 2021 number one overall pick as the poster child of these failed experiments, I think the most obvious failures have come from the pitching side of the organization. There has been one pitching success story that has come from the minor leagues in the entirety of the Cherington regime. Carmen Mlodzinski entered the Pirates bullpen in late June and immediately was a major success. The rookie reliever put up 0.8 bWAR and posted a 2.25 ERA in 36 innings for his first stint in the big leagues. This is good, Carmen looks early on to be a backend bullpen guy for the Pirates and every team needs one of those. However, a single reliever in year four of the Cherington experiment being the only successful pitcher to make the jump to the majors is a massive problem. The Pirates have had young arms Roansy Conteras, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Wil Crowe, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson, and Miguel Yajure since 2021 audition to find a spot in the rotation and none of them have been able to stick. This merry band of AAAA players have produced a whopping -1.3 bWAR combined in their limited time in the major leagues. While some like Ortiz and Contreras have shown brief flashes of being able to attain major league success, both found themselves out of a rotation spot for the majority of 2023; where the Pirates found it better to run out 2 bullpen games a week instead of letting them pitch in Major League baseball games.
To break down exactly why each of these pitchers has failed to stick (and why half of them aren’t even on the team anymore) is a project for another day. But it doesn’t take a genius to understand why this is such a big issue if the Pirates have any desire to compete in the upcoming window. Starting pitching is by far the most expensive and highly valued commodity on the market in modern-day baseball. It is so expensive that even the biggest spenders like the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, and Braves all needed help from their farm systems to provide them with homegrown cheap starting pitching. When you’re the general manager of the team owned by Bob Nutting, this problem is amplified exponentially. The Pirates will not even sniff acquiring Aaron Nola, Jordan Montgomery, Blake Snell, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, or any of the other big-name free-agent starters. The Pirates have also shown a general unwillingness to part with prospects to add young talent with years of control. So when we cannot develop elite pitching talent, we cannot buy the elite pitching talent, and we won’t trade for the elite pitching talent, you start to look around and wonder how on earth this iteration of the Pirates will ever be able to truly compete.
To paint a picture of just how devoid of talent the Pirates are on the pitching side of things, let’s talk about what a rotation would look like if the season started tomorrow and the Pirates had to use 5 healthy guys they had available. It would look like this: Mitch Keller (4.21 ERA), Roansy Conteras (6.59 ERA), Luis Ortiz (4.78 ERA), Bailey Falter (5.58 ERA as a pirate), and Quinn Priester (7.74 ERA). Ask yourself in earnest how many games that Pirates team would realistically win trotting those 5 out to start games with the occasional spot start from guys like Osvaldo Bido or Andre Jackson. We are lying to ourselves if we think that the roster as it stands is looking poised to make a playoff run. These simply should not be problems facing a team that has been actively trying to lose in order to acquire as much young talent as possible for 5 years.
Ben Cherington has backed himself into a massive corner this offseason. Even with an owner like Bob Nutting, five straight seasons of humiliation rituals masquerading as a baseball team will have you on a very short leash. The near arrival of Paul Skenes will certainly help this problem once his development finishes right after his Super 2 date passes. But as we stand if we are assuming that J.T. Brubaker is a starter next season, (and he is barely a 5th starter) then Ben has the task of not only finding 3 starting pitchers in the offseason; but also needs to have 3 arms that will actually help the Pirates compete. Signing Rich Hill and Tyler Anderson simply won’t cut it anymore, eating innings is not the priority. I am not a General Manager so I won’t pretend like I have the secret formula for Ben to cook up and fix the mess he’s created. But if the goal is to bring back Buctober for the first time in 9 years, we have to construct a roster that should be able to absorb the loss of a 4.31 ERA pitcher. Having it feel like a death knell does not strike confidence in me.