The Pirates' starting rotation picture -- as will be the case with the bullpen -- is unclear for 2021 beyond the first few options. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Pirates in the offseason added veteran starters and some solid prospects who have a chance to contribute. They are planning to stretch out around a dozen pitchers this season, so there will be more options than just those listed below.
Here is a preview of who could be in the starting rotation in 2021.
Locks (4): Steven Brault, Mitch Keller, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Anderson
All of these pitchers are working to make significant gains, but they’re also marked in as starters. Brault broke out in 2020, beginning as a piggyback starter option before pitching a complete game vs. the Cardinals on Sept. 17 and finishing with a 3.38 ERA. Keller, the Pirates’ former No. 1 prospect, is still looking for his breakout year, but he has shown that when he’s around the zone, his stuff plays.
Kuhl is entering his first full season since he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018. He’s working to refine his two-seamer to complement his slider and curveball, which are his main weapons. Anderson, who was added on a one-year deal in January, will join Brault as the top left-handed options in the rotation after putting up a 4.37 ERA in 13 games (11 starts) with the Giants last season.
On the bubble (4): Trevor Cahill, JT Brubaker, Wil Crowe, Miguel Yajure
Cahill has about a 60-40 career split as a starter and a long reliever, but the Pirates plan to stretch him out to start. He has upped his curveball percentage over his 12-year career, and he didn’t allow a hit with it in 2020. Another option with a high-success curveball is Brubaker, who posted a 4.94 ERA last season but is seen as a bounceback candidate.
Crowe has stood out in his first spring camp with the Pirates, pitching six scoreless innings with three hits, two walks and five strikeouts. He struggled in his first taste of the Major Leagues with the Nationals last season, but the Bucs are stretching him out as a potential starter. Yajure is also being stretched out, though like Crowe he has yet to start a Grapefruit League game. He had a 1.27 ERA in three games during his debut season with the Yankees in 2020.
Depth (2): Cody Ponce, Luis Oviedo
Ponce pitched well as a fifth- or sixth-starter option in 2020, posting a 3.18 ERA in five games (three starts). But it appears he will be one of the first guys out due to the veteran additions and other young pitchers who are breaking into the Majors. Oviedo, a Rule 5 Draft selection, will need to be on the active roster at the start of the season to stay with the Pirates, and he could get starts, though he has not gotten game action in Spring Training. It would be wise to wait and see what his role is, but he has been a starter at every level in the Minors.
In the pipeline (3): Cody Bolton, Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas
Out of all the Top 30 prospects in the system who should definitely be a starter, Bolton is likely the best fit. The 22-year-old Bolton, Pittsburgh's No. 10 prospect, held hitters to a .204 batting average against at Class A Advanced Bradenton and Double-A Altoona in 2019, striking out 102 in 101 2/3 innings. Bolton won’t break camp with the team and hasn’t pitched in Spring Training, but it doesn’t appear he’s far away.
Priester and Thomas are further away. Priester, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect, got his first game reps against MLB competition on Monday, when he got two outs while allowing a walk and a hit against the Orioles. He's seen as one of the fastest-rising prospects in baseball due to his velocity, stuff and command. Thomas catapulted up the Bucs’ prospect rankings this year from No. 18 to No. 7, reaching triple digits with his fastball and impressing at the alternate training site last season. His upside is through the roof, but he will need to refine his secondary pitches.