The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Former LSU superstar pitcher Paul Skenes faces an uphill battle with his new team

All-American Paul Skenes turned in one of the most dominating seasons in college baseball history, as the ace of the LSU pitching staff in 2023. He helped them claim their seventh College World Series title. His performance landed him a No. 1 overall selection by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2023 Major League Baseball draft. Skenes will likely make his major-league debut early in 2024, so what can he expect from playing with a team that struggles with achieving a .500 record every year?

The Pirates have finished fourth or fifth in the NL Central Division since 2017. The last time they earned a postseason berth was in 2015, when Andrew McCutchen was one of the top players in the league. The last time the Pirates made it to the National League Championship Series was in 1992, when Barry Bonds was playing for them. The last time the Pirates won a World Series was in 1979, when Hall of Famer Willie Stargell was still playing for the famous “We Are Family” team.

The Pirates’ roster doesn’t have a Stargell or a Bonds now. McCutchen, now 36 years old with diminishing skills, was back with the team last year for the first time since 2017.

In other words, the Pirates won’t have the equivalent of a Dylan Cruz, Skenes’s former LSU teammate. Cruz was LSU’s primary offensive weapon, capturing the Golden Spikes Award in 2023, as collegiate baseball’s best overall player. (By the way, Skenes finished second to Cruz in the voting for the prestigious award.)

The Pirates’ offense was anemic in 2023. They were third from the bottom of the National League in Runs Scored per Game, Batting Average, and OPS. Their lineup was constantly in a state of flux. Only three players (K’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, and Jack Suwinski) had more than 500 plate appearances. The Pirates deployed a good number of kids to see if they could stick at the major-league level.

The Pirates struggled equally with their pitching. They allowed 132 more runs than the Pirates offense scored. They were below league average in Runs Allowed, ERA, and WHIP. Their brightest star was relief pitcher David Bednar, one of the best closers in the league (66 games, 2.00 ERA, 39 saves, 222 ERA+).

The Pirates gave their fans a false sense of optimism last year when they were leading the NL Central Division as late as June 11. But then they suffered a ten-game losing streak, sending them on a downward spiral for the rest of the season. They finished in fourth place, 16 game behind the division winner Milwaukee Brewers.

The Pirates obviously have a shortage of talent with their roster. But then one has to ask, why can’t the Pirates get better players? According to a USA Today article in April 2023, the Pirates were fourth from the bottom of all 30 major-league clubs in payroll, at $74 million. By comparison, even the clubs in the middle of the pack were spending twice as much as the Pirates (the No. 15 Cardinals with $175 million and the No. 16 Rockies with $171 million). The old adage “you get what you pay for” definitely applies to the Pirates. Furthermore, the Pirates haven’t been particularly adept at developing young prospects through their farm system over the years.

So, what’s in store for Skenes in 2024?

The Pirates’ front office was guarded in its use of Skenes last year, since he had put in a heavy workload during LSU’s championship run. He only had five outings in the minors, totaling 6 2/3 innings.

It’s likely Skenes will start out the 2024 season at the Double-A or Triple-A level to allow him more time to adjust to professional lineups. The Pirates will be overly cautious with their investment in Skenes, who signed for a whopping $9.2 million bonus. Perhaps by June 1, he could be called up to the big-league club. The Pirates will be careful early on, with strict pitch counts in his appearances. And because they won’t likely be in contention for the playoffs, Skenes will have a limit set on his total number of innings for the season.

Skenes showed that he was a flamethrower in his 19 appearances with LSU. He averaged 98-99 mph with his pitches during many of his games. If there is a concern about his future, it would be that his career would flame out because of the amount of stress he would put on his arm using that level of velocity in every outing of 6-7 innings in the majors. It’s happened before. Remember Mark Appel, the overall No. 1 draft pick of the Houston Astros in 2013, and Steven Strasburg, the overall No. 1 draft selection of the Washington Nationals? Skenes’s power-makeup has been compared to these highly-regarded college prospects.

I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen to Skenes. Good major-league hitters have proven they can successively barrel-up on 100-mph fastballs, if that’s all a pitcher has in his arsenal. If he can master his secondary pitches as alternatives to his blazing fastball, he should be able to prosper in the majors.

Let’s hope for the Pirates’ sake that Skenes will turn out like another one of their former overall No. 1 draft selections, pitcher Garret Cole, who has been in the Top 5 for Cy Young Award voting in six seasons of his 11 seasons. The only problem was Cole had to leave Pittsburgh to play for a winning organization.

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