June 13, 2024

Baseball enthusiasts in Western Pennsylvania have found glimmers of hope as the Pittsburgh Pirates maintain a 13-13 record, striving for their first winning season since 2018. Despite this potential, the decision to keep top pitching prospect Paul Skenes in the minor leagues raises questions.

Selected as the first overall pick in the 2023 draft from Louisiana State University, Skenes has consistently ranked as the premier pitching prospect in baseball according to major prospect lists. While MLB Pipeline places him third overall, behind Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop Jackson Holliday and Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Jackson Chourio, both already established in the Majors.

Paul Skenes Finally Allowed a Run at Triple-A on Wednesday Night

Skenes boasts two exceptional pitches, notably his fastball, rated at 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, making it one of the most impressive in scouting history. With speeds reaching the high 90s and occasionally surpassing 100 mph, it’s a formidable weapon. Additionally, his slider, often regarded as the finest in the minors, adds to his repertoire, complemented by an above-average changeup and precise command.

In his first five starts in Triple-A this season, he has posted extraordinary statistics akin to those seen in video games. Across 17 innings, he boasts an astonishingly low 0.53 ERA and has struck out an impressive 34 out of 66 batters faced. To put this into perspective, the average strikeout rate in MLB stands at 22.5% this year, while he is currently striking out hitters at a remarkable rate of 51.5%. Notably, his strikeouts outnumber all other outs combined by a two-to-one margin.

Arguably, there is little left for Skenes to prove in the minor leagues. The only drawback on his record is the Pittsburgh Pirates’ reluctance to extend his outings significantly, as indicated by his average of 3.4 innings per appearance. However, in his most recent outing on Wednesday, he pitched a season-high 4 1/3 innings and threw 71 pitches, including an impressive 50 strikes.

Even though the organization is gradually increasing his workload, the physical exertion required to pitch remains the same whether it’s in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. They could easily manage his innings while he pitches in the Majors.

The primary reason for keeping him in Triple-A appears to be unspoken. By delaying his MLB debut, the Pirates can manipulate his service time, ensuring they retain control over him until 2030. Had he started the 2024 season in the majors, he could have become a free agent after the 2029 season.

Delaying his call-up until sometime in June would likely prevent him from reaching Super Two status, granting him four years of arbitration instead of three. While this decision seems counterintuitive for a team with playoff aspirations given his talent and performance, the team has not provided a clear timeline for his promotion.

The Pirates have a recent history of signing their top young talent to extensions. Pitcher Mitch Keller is signed through 2028, while third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and outfielder Bryan Reynolds are under contract through 2030. They will likely pursue a similar path with Skenes eventually, making service time manipulation less significant. However, delaying his access to arbitration and free agency would give the club more financial leverage in negotiations.

Despite Pittsburgh’s starting pitching being a bright spot this season, with rookies like Jared Jones performing well, Skenes could have filled a void when Marco Gonzales landed on the injured list. Instead, they opted for Quinn Priester, who is scheduled to make his second start tonight in San Francisco. However, it’s difficult to argue that Priester is a better pitcher than Skenes.

While the Pirates are currently struggling to generate excitement, Skenes’s eventual call-up could significantly boost attendance, especially on days he’s scheduled to pitch. If he helps the team climb in the standings, attendance could improve even when he’s not on the mound.

According to FanGraphs’ real-time playoff odds, the Pirates have a 16% chance of making the playoffs this year, their first appearance since 2015. They also have a 6.2% chance of winning their division for the first time since 1992. However, these odds are at risk of decreasing each day, particularly on nights when Skenes could be pitching instead of Priester. Financial considerations seem to be the only justification for keeping him in the minors, as there are no remaining baseball-related reasons to do so.

Pirates Skenes, the Pittsburgh Pirates' best prospect

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