In the challenging landscape of Major League Baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates faced a daunting task last season, relying heavily on just two traditional starting pitchers and supplementing their rotation with openers and bullpen games.
This approach, far from ideal for a top-tier team, has potentially led to a significant setback: Johan Oviedo, one of their key starters, may need Tommy John surgery. The 25-year-old Oviedo, in his first entire primary league season, pitched an impressive but demanding 177.2 innings, a substantial increase from his previous professional high of 146.2 innings with the St.
Louis Cardinals' farm system in 2019. His workload had been more modest in the intervening years, with innings totaling 24.2 in 2020 (affected by the pandemic), 116.2, and 117.1 in the following seasons. This sudden increase in innings pitched, especially at a young age, now raises questions about the decision-making of the Pirates' management, mainly as this was not their initial plan for Oviedo.
The Pirates' reliance on Oviedo and Mitch Keller as their main starters was a necessary decision rather than a choice. Left-hander Bailey Falter and right-hander Andre Jackson also contributed, but often in limited roles due to pitch counts.
However, according to sources familiar with the situation, Oviedo's elbow pain and the looming possibility of him missing the entire next season or part of 2025 spotlight the management's handling of their pitching staff.
Manager Derek Shelton and pitching coach Oscar Marin faced criticism for their handling of Oviedo, especially given the heavy workload in the season's final month. General Manager Ben Cherington also shares responsibility for the team's lack of starting pitching depth.
While the Arizona Diamondbacks' success with a minimal starting rotation in their World Series run was somewhat of an anomaly, the Pirates' struggles highlight the risks of such a strategy. Injuries to JT Brubaker and Vince Velasquez compounded the Pirates' woes, and underperformances from prospects like Roansy Contreras and Luis Ortiz further depleted their options.
This lack of depth meant that Oviedo bore a significant burden, one that may have contributed to his current predicament. Looking ahead, Cherington has emphasized the importance of strengthening the pitching roster, with prospects like Quinn Priester, Paul Skenes, Jared Jones, Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler, and Thomas Harrington showing promise.
At the MLB General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona, Cherington revealed plans to focus heavily on pitching in the offseason. This direction is vital, as the Pirates aim to build a solid rotation nucleus with experienced and emerging talents. However, the journey is fraught with challenges, particularly if Oviedo is sidelined for an extended period.