Keller: Bucs' pitching depth 'right there with best'

March 21st, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- With six games remaining in Spring Training, a fair amount of uncertainty remains at several different position groups.

The Pirates’ bullpen will be without , the only established lefty in Major League camp. The bench competition remains fierce, highlighted by and competing for the fourth outfield spot. No one has emerged and grabbed the starting second base job, while the backup catcher has yet to be determined.

For all the jostling that’s occurred, there is one position group that is, for the most part, set in stone: Pittsburgh’s starting rotation.

“We’re right there with the best organizations in the game with our pitching and what we have,” said Opening Day starter . “It’s really exciting to see because there is depth, and to know -- obviously never wish anyone goes down or anyone has injuries, but if that does happen, it feels like we’re in a good spot to have that filled.”

The Pirates entered Spring Training with their starting five firmly intact. Keller, and are the incumbents, while and signed one-year deals. On paper, those five compose Pittsburgh’s best rotation in several years. Brubaker logged six strikeouts over five innings in a 4-3 walk-off win over the Phillies on Tuesday.

Keller, 26, Contreras, 23, and Brubaker, 29, represent the foundation. Keller and Brubaker are both coming off career years, having recorded career-bests in innings, strikeouts, ERA and FIP. Both right-handers came into camp throwing something new; Keller added a cutter, while Brubaker, with some tweaks, is getting no fewer than three additional inches of horizontal movement with his curveball. Contreras officially graduated from prospect status last season, and after splitting time in the Majors and Minors, the Pirates are counting on Contreras to pitch end-to-end.

Hill, 43, is the epitome of a savvy veteran. He’ll enter this season as the oldest player in baseball, and his younger teammates are already benefiting from Hill’s mentorship.

Velasquez, 30, enters this season as a bit of a wild card. The right-hander tantalized and teased his stuff during five-and-a-half years with the Phillies, but he has never quite put it all together. After spending last year primarily as a swingman, Velasquez will, once again, have an opportunity to start games every five days.

While Keller, Contreras, Brubaker, Hill and Velasquez will serve as Pittsburgh’s quintet to begin the season, the rotation could look different -- and very likely will look different -- by the end of the summer.

The Pirates have a track record of dealing veteran starters at the Trade Deadline to contenders. In 2021, they signed Tyler Anderson to a one-year deal, then sent him to the Mariners. In ‘22, they signed José Quintana to a one-year deal, then traded him to the Cardinals. If this season doesn't go as hoped, the Bucs could do the same with Hill and Velasquez this July. Should they go that route, they’ll have a stable of young arms waiting in the wings.

The 25-year-old Johan Oviedo and 24-year-old Luis Ortiz, ranked as the Pirates’ No. 8 prospect by MLB Pipeline, started games for Pittsburgh down the stretch and should factor into the Major League equation at some point. Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows, the Pirates’ Nos. 4 and 9 prospects, respectively, will begin the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, but they are knocking on PNC Park’s door.

There’s also starters such as Kyle Nicolas and Carmen Mlodzinski, the Pirates’ No. 20 and No. 25 prospects, who have impressed during Spring Training and could make a case if they stand out with Indianapolis.

“Collectively, I think we feel like we’re at a much better spot than we were three years ago with our depth,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I think we’ve seen it over the fact of three years ago, where we were at and who we have and the number of depth arms that we have -- depth arms that are going to impact us in Pittsburgh, some sooner, some later.”