August 15, 2022

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Contreras optioned to build up as starter

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CHICAGO — There will likely come a day when Roansy Contreras is part of the Pirates’ starting rotation, when he gets the ball every five days, when his fastball bends time, when his curveball bends space, when he’s given the opportunity to officially graduate from prospect status, when he embarks on the journey of becoming the next great pitcher to rock the black and gold.

Contreras was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis on Thursday, ahead of Pittsburgh’s 4-3 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Right-hander Chase De Jong took his place. To make room for De Jong on the 40-man roster, right-hander Luis Oviedo was designated for assignment.

“He handled it extremely well and very professionally,” said manager Derek Shelton. “He understands how we feel about him.”

Shelton explained that Contreras was demoted so he’d have the opportunity to get stretched out. The organization views Contreras as a starter, but he has yet to throw more than three innings or 46 pitches in a single outing this season. There was also the option, of course, for Contreras to be stretched out with the Pirates, but Shelton said it was best from a “developmental perspective” for Contreras to do so in Indianapolis. On this night, the Pirates were able to get by without Contreras, as their bullpen shined for six shutout innings in relief of Bryse Wilson, threw just 60 pitches in three innings of three-run ball. Wilson has a 6.35 ERA through three starts this season.

Shelton added that “we sent [Contreras] down with a pretty direct message on what our expectations were.” When asked about the specific expectations for Contreras, Shelton declined to further elaborate.

The threat of being optioned back to Indianapolis perpetually loomed for Contreras. The only reason that Contreras was pitching for the Pirates this early in the season, after all, was due to a litany of injuries on the 40-man roster. Once Contreras got to the Majors, however, he made a compelling case to stay.

Contreras, the No. 70 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, had been as good as advertised. In three multi-inning relief outings, Contreras allowed three runs across 7 2/3 innings. He had 10 strikeouts to three walks. Last week, Contreras threw three scoreless innings against the Nationals with five strikeouts to secure his first Major League win. Dive further into the numbers and Contreras has been even more impressive.

His Baseball Savant page is splashed with red, the color of excellence. As of his demotion, Contreras ranks 90th percentile in whiff percentage and 92nd percentile in chase rate. Those aren’t numbers that can easily be faked. The numbers, both standard and advanced, are one thing. There’s also the matter of how Contreras looked.

The rookie became appointment television. His fastball sat in the high 90s. Roberto Pérez compared Contreras’ curveball to that of Shane Bieber. Most of his strikeouts (eight of 10) were of the swinging variety, a universal sign that hitters have been overpowered or befuddled — or a little of both. To compliment the pure stuff, Contreras, still unmistakably green to the big league level, operated with the presence, poise and panache of a veteran.

“I’ve been here for just a short amount of time, and the times I’ve seen him throw, I mean, it’s definitely not a question of whether the stuff’s good enough,” designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach said last week.

“I think the more pitches, the more comfortable he gets,” Shelton said. “I think that’s normal at the big league level. One thing that we found about [Roansy], for a 22-year-old kid, regardless of what happens, you never really see him get phased. He gave up the home run [on Tuesday], the next pitch out of his hand was 97 [mph]. He stood right back up on the mound, went right back after guys. That’s a good sign for us.”

Contreras, in all likelihood, will pitch again for the Pirates this season. When that happens is unknown. Like his initial callup, it could be sooner than expected. It might not. Either way, Contreras left a memorable impression in the little time he was in the Majors, and Pittsburgh can only hope the magic continues when they bring him back into the fold.

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