Know that old quote, “Necessity is the mother of invention”? In baseball, there can be a variation: Necessity is the mother of opportunity.
That’s the case with Roansy Contreras getting his second chance to show what he can do in the big leagues. The first came last September after a breakout season in 2021, his first with the Pirates after coming over in the Jameson Taillon trade. This one came because when Duane Underwood Jr. got hurt on Opening Day, there was literally no other healthy arm on the 40-man roster to call up.
This wasn’t exactly the plan as the Pirates hoped to let the No. 70 prospect start in Triple-A until there was a need in the rotation. Now he’s up and came out of the bullpen on Saturday, something he hasn’t done since he was in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League with the Yankees back in 2017. Whether that could lead to other chances and/or a move to a starting role remains to be seen.
There’s no question he has the stuff to get big league hitters out. He showed that both in 2021 as he dominated in Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League. In 2021, all of his stuff trended up and he maintained it, though he missed a portion of the season with a forearm strain. His fastball touched 97-98 mph during the season and averaged around 96. He carried that over to the AFL, where he was 96-97 mph with his fastball.
One thing scouts identified as an area where he needed to improve was his fastball command and that got better as the year went on. In the Fall League, he commanded his heater extremely well, a big reason why he was considered one of the best pitching prospects there.
His secondary stuff has also gotten better, with all three — his curve, slider and changeup — looking at least like above-average offerings, if not better. In the AFL, his breaking ball was easily plus.
In a bullpen role, Contreras could be effective with his fastball-breaking ball combination alone, and could focus on just one instead of throwing both the curve and slider. This is where his future role comes into play. For now, he’s a reliever, but the Pirates don’t see that as the 22-year-old’s long-term gig.
He has the stuff and command to start, and he’s shown it holds up over the course of longer outings. The bigger question goes back to that forearm issue and his size. He’s just 6 feet tall, though he’s strong and very athletic. But given the size and the missed time — he totaled just 75 innings between the Minors, Pittsburgh and the AFL in 2021 — durability is the one question he must answer to be a starter long-term.
For now, it’s unclear if he’ll get a chance to answer that question in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are kind of taking it a day at a time and assessing needs. In a perfect world, Contreras will get the chance to start and whether it’s in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis is TBD. While the right-hander gave up a couple of runs in his 2022 debut, he should settle in to being effective out of the ‘pen for as long as he’s up with the big club. Manager Derek Shelton has described the rotation situation as “fluid” and it’s certainly not out of the question to see Contreras pitch well enough to get a chance to slide into a starting spot.
Contreras has talked about how his brief time up in the big leagues showed him that it’s the same game and that he can compete at that level. Even if this stay is brief, he can still learn about what works and doesn’t work for whenever a long-term rotation spot opens up.