December 3, 2022

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Wilson hits speed bump in latest look as starter

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PITTSBURGH — When the Pirates acquired right-hander Bryse Wilson from the Braves at the Trade Deadline in 2021, general manager Ben Cherington made it clear that Wilson was going to get a long look as a starter in the team’s rotation.

But after Wilson allowed six runs on eight hits and a walk while going just 2 2/3 innings in an 11-1 loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday night at PNC Park, it’s worth reevaluating his role as a starter and looking ahead to how he might fit into the Pirates’ pitching plans this year.

Tuesday’s start was no easy ask for Wilson. The Dodgers have one of the most loaded lineups in baseball. The way Wilson finds success leaves little margin for error against a team like that.

“That’s the biggest battle when facing a lineup like that is, especially with a pitcher like I am, my stuff plays really well in the zone,” Wilson said. “So I don’t want to be too perfect, because I don’t want to walk everybody. But at the same time, you do have to execute more pitches than not when you’re facing guys like that.”

Going deep into games has been difficult so far this season for Wilson. Nine of his 16 starts in 2021 across Atlanta and Pittsburgh lasted five innings or more. The longest he’s gone in any of his four starts this season is 4 1/3 innings vs. the Nationals on April 16, and Tuesday’s outing against the Dodgers was his shortest so far.

“It’s obviously a very good team,” Wilson said. “I think they just had a good scouting report on me. I didn’t execute a few pitches there in the first inning. After that, they just put really good swings on really good pitches.”

Wilson has posted a 5.96 ERA (36 runs in 54 1/3 innings) as a starter since the Pirates acquired him last season. The club experimented with the idea of using him as a piggyback starter two times this season. In the first instance on April 27 vs. the Brewers, he went four scoreless innings. The second time, on May 4 against the Tigers, he didn’t allow an earned run in 3 2/3 innings though three unearned runs scored.

Being moved from the rotation to the bullpen sometimes brings out the best in a pitcher’s stuff. For instance, Wil Crowe had a 5.48 ERA in 2021, when he led the team with 25 starts. But Crowe began ‘22 with six scoreless relief outings, he owns a 2.33 ERA in 11 such appearances and his velocity is a tick up.

The Pirates aren’t going to commit to a firm role for Wilson just yet, but they know that he has struggled to grow as a starter.

“I think he has to be flexible in all [roles], but results always matter, and they always play into a decision,” manager Derek Shelton said. “The other thing is sometimes availability [dictates things], sometimes [lineups] go in there. So it’s something we will continue to work through, not just with Bryse, but with all of our guys.”

With the state of the Pirates’ pitching corps, an arm like Wilson could easily see a similar number of innings out of the bullpen to what he’s seeing as a starter this season. But it’s also worth asking: If not Wilson, then who else to start?

Most of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects are at Double-A and below. Of the prospects at Triple-A, Miguel Yajure has yet to start for the club this season, but his relief appearances have seen harsh results. Cody Bolton has only made three starts in game action since the 2019 season due to the pandemic and a knee injury. Roansy Contreras is a sure bet to come up at some point this year, but that time does not appear to be now.

At the Major League level, only two regular starters in the Pirates’ rotation have a career starting ERA under 5: Zach Thompson, who has made 19 career starts, and José Quintana, who has pitched for 11 MLB seasons.

Despite the struggles, it’s understandable that Pittsburgh wants to give Wilson more rope to develop at the Major League level. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Wilson is only 24 years old. He’s already pitching in his fifth MLB season and has thrown crucial innings in the postseason with the Braves. But he has also only thrown 138 1/3 innings in his big league career.

“We’re talking about a lot of 24-year-olds that pitch in Triple-A, and this guy has got five years in the big leagues,” Shelton said. “So there are still things we are identifying, things we still like, but I do think your point is right: This is a young kid still. So there is growth, and there’s going to be bumps in the road, and there’s going to be ups and downs.”

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