Velasquez ready to compete for starting role with Bucs
Vince Velasquez grew plenty familiar with the cadence and rhythm of bullpens this past summer.
Velasquez had primarily been a starting pitcher for just about his entire baseball life, occasionally appearing out of the bullpen. In 2022, that dynamic flipped. He made twice as many relief appearances as starts, the first time in his professional career that he relieved more than started. The desire to return to his roots as a starter never faded. With the Pirates, Velasquez will have that chance.
“I think I’m here to come in and have an impact on everybody else to show that there is opportunity, that there is possibility, that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Velasquez said. “That’s my whole … mentality of going into this offseason knowing this was an opportunity I needed to take.”
The Pirates officially announced the signing of Velasquez to a one-year contract on Tuesday. The deal will be worth $3.15 million, a source told MLB.com. In the accompanying press release, general manager Ben Cherington clearly laid out the team’s plans for Velasquez moving forward.
“We are happy to bring Vince into our starting pitching group,” Cherington said. “He has a starter’s repertoire and we are looking forward to working with him and watching him start games in black and gold.”
Velasquez began last season in the White Sox rotation but struggled out of the gate, posting a 5.79 ERA and a 5.47 FIP in his first seven starts. The right-hander made a relief appearance on May 24, then landed on the injured list shortly after. Upon returning, Velasquez primarily relieved for the rest of the season.
“I think every day is a learning experience,” Velasquez said on what he learned being in the bullpen. “I don’t take really anything for granted. I think it’s more so of always building the learning curve. Sometimes you may reinvent the wheel a little bit, but there’s nothing wrong with kind of taking a couple steps back and taking 10 steps forward.”
Velasquez spoke at length on Tuesday about his evolution as a pitcher. He discussed how he has undergone the process of trial and error in the pursuit of consistency. He attributed his drop in strikeouts and walks to an emphasis on effectiveness and trusting his defense. Most notably, Velasquez reflected on how he has grown since the single best pitching performance of his career.
On April 14, 2016, Velasquez turned in an absolute gem of a performance, striking out 16 batters in a three-hit shutout of the Padres. Velasquez has rewatched the performance a handful of times.
“As much as I would love to strike out 17, 18, whatever it may be, that’s just not my goal anymore,” Velasquez said. “I think it’s more so, ‘How can I be an effective pitcher and learn how to get outs and … hand the ball over to the bullpen whenever it’s needed knowing that I went out there and did my job?’
“At that time, I was a thrower. I was a guy who had high velocity. But I think there’s bits and pieces that you have to take away from that and realize that you can’t do that effectively from the first inning to the ninth inning. When I was a young guy, I probably could. But now I’m a little bit older and it’s going to take a little bit out of me. The next day, I’ll be sore. But again, that’s the process."
With Velasquez in the fold, the Pirates’ rotation currently projects to feature Velasquez, Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker and Johan Oviedo, with Luis Ortiz and Bryse Wilson in the running for a spot as well. That dynamic could change if the Pirates add even more starting depth. At the Winter Meetings, Cherington discussed his desire to create competition come Spring Training.
“We’re excited about our group of young starters and also would like there to be competition amongst that group,” Cherington said. “Feeling like that tends to help everybody when there’s competition and there’s a spot to win as opposed to a spot given to. Fully anticipate we’re going to see some of that young starting group make meaningful starts in the big leagues next year, but if we can deepen the rotation and create some more competition, I think we would like to do that."