Ortiz fans Cruz as Bucs' rotation battle heats up

February 19th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- A matchup of vs. is one of the best examples of power vs. power on the Pirates' roster. Cruz’s pop consistently tests Statcast's limits, while Ortiz can ramp up his fastball to the upper 90s.

So, of course, their first live meeting on Monday at Pirate City ended with, what else, a changeup. Ortiz came out the victor, as Cruz swung through it.

“Of all the times I’ve faced Luis, today I saw him in a really good spot,” Cruz said via interpreter Stephen Morales.

Going by the smile Ortiz cracked when asked about that pitch, it was clear he was proud of that changeup.

"It's something I've been working on since last year, you guys know,” Ortiz said, also via Morales. “I have to start drawing it early just to make it work."

That changeup has been a work in progress for a couple years for Ortiz, a potential third pitch that could help him firmly establish himself as a starter. That wasn’t the only thing that needed a tuneup after last year, though.

Ortiz burst onto the scene in 2022 with power sinkers and a wipeout slider, rising from Single-A Bradenton to the Majors in one calendar year. The hope was he could establish himself as a starter quickly, but he instead bounced between the Majors and Minors and the rotation and the bullpen, finishing with a 4.78 ERA over 86 2/3 big league innings.

Despite not taking that extra step, the Pirates came into this Spring Training making it clear there are starting opportunities up for grabs -- and Ortiz is one of the guys in that mix. And in the first week of camp, Ortiz is making a good impression.

“I thought he moved down the mound well,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He threw a couple good changeups and the sinker had some action to it. Talking to Bryan [Reynolds], Tri [Jared Triolo] and Cruzy about it, it seemed like the ball had good action to it, and that’s the most important thing.”

As for Ortiz, he knows he’s got plenty of competition from other young arms, most notably Roansy Contreras, Quinn Priester and Bailey Falter. Out of that group, Ortiz and Priester are the only ones who can be optioned to the Minors, so they are going to have to show something this spring to earn a job.

"Continue to work hard,” Ortiz said. “Just make sure I put myself in a good spot. I know it's a competition. Just be myself, execute my pitches and somebody else will make a decision."

Fleming’s new pitch
The Pirates also have several newcomers competing for one of their backend rotation spots, including Josh Fleming, who signed with the team last week.

Fleming, 27, bounced between the Minors and Majors with the Rays last season, posting a 4.70 ERA over 51 2/3 big league innings.

While he doesn’t strike out many, Fleming's 61.6% ground-ball rate last season ranked in the 98th percentile among pitchers, according to Baseball Savant. The plan is for him to start several games, then evaluate whether that is the best option or if he would be best deployed out of the bullpen.

Fleming also came to Pirate City with a new pitch he’s dusting off: A cutter. It was his second-most used pitch in the early years of his career, but he scrapped it in the middle of the 2022 campaign.

“Just didn't have the best feel for it, got hit around a lot,” Fleming said. “One of the things when talking to some guys in the organization, they really liked the cutter -- and I actually did, too -- before it got scrapped. I'm excited to start throwing it again.”

Anderson’s second chance with Pirates
Chase Anderson also joined that starter mix after signing a Minor League deal that was announced by the team on Monday. It’s Anderson's first time with the Pirates, though he nearly signed with them in 2021 before opting to go with the Phillies instead.

“Looking back, in hindsight, this might have been the better spot for me,” Anderson said. “I'm here now. Looking forward to this opportunity. I just felt like it was the best opportunity to make a team and compete for a spot.”