No longer on leash, Roansy eyes big step forward

February 21st, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- doesn’t take this opportunity for granted.

Contreras, assuming health, won’t just be on the Opening Day roster but likely will possess a spot at the top of the rotation. He has shed the label of rookie and prospect, one of several 20-somethings ready to make a leap. Contreras, however, knows nothing is given.

“My mindset is always to win a spot and not feel like I earned a spot already in the rotation,” Contreras said through team interpreter Stephen Morales. “[My mindset is] to come here and work hard every day and not think about a spot in that rotation. That way, I can be the best version of [myself] every day.”

The Pirates will count on Contreras to be the best version of himself every five or so days throughout the spring and summer, a contrast to the twists and turns that defined his rookie year.

Contreras was slated to begin last season with Triple-A Indianapolis, but the Pirates called him up on April 9 after their first game when Duane Underwood Jr. hit the injured list. Contreras made three relief appearances -- April 9, 14 and 19 -- before the Pirates sent him down for a month.

On May 24, the Pirates recalled Contreras, and he started for a month-and-a-half.

On July 7, the Pirates initiated a planned shutdown, optioning Contreras to Indianapolis for a month.

On Aug. 17, Contreras returned and pitched for Pittsburgh the rest of the way.

In 2023, Contreras likely won’t experience that type of shuffling. The Pirates plan to have him in the rotation from beginning to end, setting up the 23-year-old to take on the most innings of his career.

The Pirates said they will be mindful of how much they ask of Contreras. In 2021, Contreras pitched just 61 total innings in the Majors and Minors, missing time due to a right forearm strain. Contreras pitched 129 1/3 innings in ’22 and didn’t miss time due to injury, but his velocity noticeably dropped as the months progressed.

In April, Contreras' fastball had an average velocity of 97.1 mph. In July, it was down to 95.8 mph. By September, it was down to 94.5 mph.

That diminished fastball -- Contreras’ slider also dropped from the mid to low 80s -- may have played a role in him finishing in the 4th percentile of hard-hit rate and barrel percentage, as well as the 12th percentile of average exit velocity.

To add more complexity to the equation, Contreras will pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, a hyper-competitive tournament that contrasts with the more lax nature of Spring Training.

Manager Derek Shelton believes the opportunity for players like Contreras to play on this stage and be alongside the game’s best players will be invaluable. That said, the Pirates will be cognizant of how much -- and how frequently -- the Dominican Republic utilizes Contreras.

As far as an innings limit, general manager Ben Cherington said the team does not “want to put any sort of artificial harness on it.” The Pirates might use alternative methods to manage Contreras’ workloads, but a full shutdown seems unlikely. Contreras, for his part, knows the Pirates expect him to take on an increased workload.

“That was part of my routine and preparation in the offseason, to make sure I can do that this year, go from the beginning to the end healthy,” Contreras said.

Contreras’ evolution as a pitcher will also hinge on the development of his changeup, a pitch that is still in its infancy.

The right-hander’s changeup accounted for only 2.9 percent of his pitches in 2022, and when he did throw it, he struggled with command. The sample size on the results is too small to be conclusive, but opponents were 3-for-9 with a home run against Contreras’ changeup.

“The main thing right now is to just throw those pitches around the strike zone,” Contreras said. “Just work on that because there’s proof that the more strikes you throw, the more chances you have to be successful.”