by J.T. Toth
Photo courtesy of Minor League Baseball.
With the first pick of the 2023 MLB Draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected right-handed starting pitcher Paul Skenes out of LSU, a fireballer with pedigree and oozing potential. Skenes, a 6’6” 235 lb. flamethrower, has touched 102 mph with his fastball and brings with it a repertoire of pitches that includes a devastating slider and solid power changeup.
In 2023, he struck out 209 hitters, an average of 15.3 per 9 innings, while maintaining an amazing 0.75 WHIP. Skenes is said to be the best pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg in 2009.
The last time the Pirates selected a starting pitcher first overall it was Gerrit Cole, who went first in the 2011 draft. He went on to a 59-42 record in five seasons with the Pirates, becoming a dependable top of the rotation pitcher but never the “ace” the Pirates envisioned him to be. Once Cole left Pittsburgh, however, he blossomed into one of MLB’s most feared pitchers, striking out over 300 hitters and winning 20 games in 2019 for the Astros.
Skenes could be on the mound as soon as 2024 and the Pirates will then likely feature a one-two punch of Skenes and current Bucs ace Mitch Keller at the top of their rotation. Skenes dominated the best hitters in college baseball last season and his stuff is major league ready.
But in a bit of a plot twist, there are whispers that Skenes could be an Ohtani-like two-way player, but the Pirates brass is likely to squash rumors to that effect. Skenes had an historically strong season at LSU when he focused solely on his pitching and had foregone appearances at the plate.
Before his time at LSU, Skenes caught and threw in relief at Air Force, hitting .410 as a freshman with 11 home runs. As a sophomore, he registered 153 at bats, hitting .314 with 13 bombs.
So can Skenes hit?
The answer is yes. But his accomplishments at the plate were against Mountain West Conference pitching, and not against SEC level talent, let alone pitching at the pro-level. The Pirates, by virtue of choosing Skenes first overall, have invested the future of their franchise in him, and the probability of them slowing his arrival to the majors by asking him to bat is unlikely.
Although Draft 412 stands behind its support of Dylan Crews as the better choice for the Pirates at #1, it is hard to argue against Skenes. A pitcher with his potential leading a rotation that also includes a rising Mitch Keller is a great selling point for fans and sponsors alike. Cherington might have just put the most important piece to the puzzle of the Pirates' rebuild in place.
Most people thought after the selection of Paul Skenes that Ben Cherington was going to shut Skenes down until the 2024 season. However, Skenes made 5 starts between the Rookie League, A and AA and at times looked dominant. Though he only pitched 6.2 innings, he showed everybody the speed he has with his fastball and the movement of his nasty slider. He struck out 10 and only walked 2 during this stretch and if not for one rough inning for the Altoona Curve, his 5.40 ERA would be miniscule. It wasn’t hard to see he has front of the rotation stuff and should compete for Cy Young awards in the upcoming seasons.
Strap on your seatbelts. This could be one hell of a ride.