PITTSBURGH -- For the second time in the past five days, the Pirates could only sit and watch as a National League East team clinched a spot in the postseason. On Tuesday, it was the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. On Saturday night, it was the Marlins who celebrated after handing the Bucs a 7-3 loss at PNC Park.
There’s a sentiment in Pittsburgh’s clubhouse that, come September 2024, they’ll be popping bubbly and celebrating success. Right-hander Quinn Priester certainly believes so -- and he believes he can be one of the starting pitchers who makes that moment possible.
“The thing that's fueling me going into this offseason is winning,” said Priester, who allowed four earned runs across 5 1/3 innings to Miami in his final outing of the 2023 campaign. “We've gone through some amazing spurts here where we're winning a lot of games and playing really well as a team. That's really what's motivating me. Seeing Miami celebrate on the field, that's really, really motivating to me.
“I know if I take care of business this offseason, I'm probably going to be one of the best five guys, and really make an impact next year with the things that I've learned.”
The Major League game, over the past two months, has taught Priester plenty.
Hailed as the Pirates’ best pitching prospect over the past several years, Priester learned first-hand how unforgiving hitters at this level can be. In 10 games (eight starts), Priester yielded 43 earned runs across 50 innings (7.74 ERA) with 36 strikeouts against 27 walks and 12 home runs.
Priester experienced a rude awakening in his first six Major League starts, allowing 29 earned runs across 28 2/3 innings (9.10 ERA). His peripherals weren’t savory either: 23 strikeouts to 18 walks and seven home runs. After making his MLB debut on July 17, Priester was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis on Aug. 15.
Priester made four starts with Indianapolis, posting a 2.66 ERA with 32 strikeouts across 20 1/3 innings, before being recalled on Sept. 13. His final four starts of the regular season were better compared to his first stint, but still left much to be desired. Across 21 1/3 innings, Priester yielded 14 earned runs (5.91 ERA) with 13 strikeouts, nine walks and five home runs.
“I’m very happy to be able to achieve this dream of being in the big leagues, and making the big leagues, but we obviously want better results,” Priester said. “Now, I’m learning what I can get away with in certain counts here, what I can throw, what’s working really well, what needs to be worked on.
“That becomes very apparent because with big league hitters -- it doesn’t take a while for them to find the things that they can expose you on.”
The true encouragement in Priester’s last four starts lay primarily in his re-discovered velocity. After sitting in the low-90s during his first stint, Priester was back up to the mid-90s in his second stint. The result, then, was Priester showing more flashes of being a rotation mainstay.
“As a whole, we saw him get better,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He came to the big leagues the first time, there were some things that he was shown that he needed to do to execute, that he needed to improve on. … I think we have a pathway for what he needs to do to be an effective Major League pitcher.”
With the Pirates never truly in contention for an NL Wild Card spot this season, Priester was afforded the opportunity to take his lumps in the Majors. Next year, with the expectation being the playoffs, his margin for error will be significantly smaller.
As things stand, Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo are locks for the 2024 Opening Day rotation. The third, fourth and fifth spots, by contrast, are ambiguous. The Bucs have plenty of internal candidates, a list that includes Priester, Luis L. Ortiz, Roansy Contreras, Bailey Falter and Andre Jackson.
The Pirates will likely add depth through external means as well, whether that’s by trade, free agency or both.
Pittsburgh has several internal candidates who could feasibly pitch in the Major League rotation as the 2024 season rolls along. JT Brubaker and Mike Burrows, who ranks as the Pirates’ No. 9 prospect by MLB Pipeline, underwent season-ending surgery to reconstruct their right ulnar collateral ligaments (UCL) in April. Both could return to game action midway through next season.
This is all to say that, heading into next season, the Pirates will not hand Priester a rotation spot -- he must seize it himself.
“This is where meritocracy comes into play,” Shelton said. “Just because you're here now, doesn't mean you're going to play here in April, because we have a lot of people vying for positions.”