Pirates A to Z: After starting in relief, Roansy Contreras relieved to finish season as starter (2024)

During the offseason, the Tribune-Review will offer Pirates A to Z: An alphabetical, player-by-player look at the 40-man roster, from outfielder Miguel Andujar to pitcher Miguel Yajure.

Player: Roansy Contreras

Positions: Pitcher

Throws: Right

Age: 23 (Nov. 7)

Height: 6 foot

Weight: 175 pounds

2022 MLB statistics: Went 5-5 with a 3.79 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, 86 strikeouts and 39 walks in 95 innings over 21 appearances, including 18 starts.

Contract: Pre-arbitration eligible.

Acquired: From the New Yankees, along with Miguel Yajure, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Maikol Escotto, in a trade for pitcher Jameson Taillon in January 2021.

This past season: Contreras didn’t make the Opening Day lineup but the top-100 prospect was determined to finish with the Pirates, even if it meant pressing pause in the middle of the season.

Contreras started in relief but was relieved to finish as a starter.

“I’m just really grateful that I was able to be up here,” Contreras said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez, “but more than anything, my biggest desire was to be able to finish strong and healthy.”

After an electric debut in October 2021, Contreras was expected to make a push for a spot in the starting rotation. Because Contreras missed two months that summer with forearm soreness and a shortened spring training, the Pirates planned to stretch him out at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Those plans were shelved when reliever Duane Underwood Jr. strained his hamstring in the season opener. Contreras was called up to bolster the bullpen, as his first three appearances came in relief.

Contreras earned his first major league win April 15, striking out five — including childhood hero Nelson Cruz — in three innings of relief in a 9-4 win over the Washington Nationals.

Roansy Contreras racked up 5 K's over three scoreless innings and earned his first MLB win for the @Pirates. pic.twitter.com/7iodi5tZoo

— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 15, 2022

The Pirates did so with the intention of having Contreras work into the starting rotation.

“We certainly believe that over time he’s got the ability to be that kind of guy, to go deeper into the game,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “He has multiple good pitches, can throw strikes and he’s athletic and he has some of the traits that guys like that need to have. He’s really important to us.”

So important that the Pirates optioned Contreras to Indianapolis in early July, despite a 3-2 record with a 3.78 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in his first 50 innings. It was an unpopular move, shutting down a starter mid-season, but one that was done by design to preserve his health.

Contreras went 19 days between starts, then was built back up gradually. He was 1-1 with a 3.15 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 34 1/3 innings over nine starts at Indianapolis before returning to the Pirates in mid-August.

“We wanted him to finish the season starting,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “We had to give him that little break in the middle of the year to do that.”

Contreras pitched five or more innings in 11 of his 18 starts and recorded seven or more strikeouts five times, including eight in a 2-1 win over Arizona where he allowed one run on four hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings.

His worst outing came in a 19-2 loss to Milwaukee on July 1, when he surrendered seven runs on five hits and two walks, giving up three home runs and failing to escape the second inning.

Pirates pitching coach Oscar Marin said Contreras was tipping pitches, as film study showed that the Brewers were hunting 98-mph fastballs at the top of the zone. It proved to be a valuable learning experience for Contreras, who vowed to correct the issue.

“There were a lot of things that didn’t work out, a lot of things that just went wrong that just didn’t feel right, but afterwards, me being able to just really analyze the situation, watch film, study the film and things like that, I just felt like I grew so much from that,” Contreras said. “It also taught me just a different caliber of preparation going in my next outing.”

When Contreras returned to the Pirates, he went 2-3 with a 3.80 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his final nine starts. That included five consecutive starts where he allowed two runs or fewer, highlighted by his seven strikeouts in five scoreless innings at Philadelphia on Aug. 28.

“Getting towards the end of the season, the most innings he’s thrown in a very long time, he looked like it wore down on him a little bit but he finished the season healthy and with the (mentality) that, ‘I’ve got to pitch today,’” Marin said. “That’s huge for a young starting pitcher to learn how to be able to be able to maneuver and pitch and get yourself through games.”

Contreras gave up 13 homers, including one in each of his final three starts. He had a career-high 10 strikeouts against the Yankees but also allowed six runs on six hits and two walks. In his final start, Contreras gave up home run No. 702 to St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols.

Contreras was grateful that the Pirates put him in position to face future Hall of Famers and the challenge of going against the All-Star-laden lineups of playoff teams down the stretch.

“To be able to look back at the season and just see how everything went — the ups and downs — but to be able to know that I finished strong and finished healthy, that gives me a lot of pleasure right there,” Contreras said. “Overall, I’m just grateful for the opportunity the organization gave me, how much they believed in me and for me to be able to come out here and do what I do and be able to demonstrate that I belong here.”

The future: Contreras learned that he can’t rely so heavily on his four-seam fastball, which opponents hit at a .276 clip even though he ranked in the 80th percentile in fastball velocity (95.6 mph) but in the fourth percentile in hard-hit rate (45.9%) and barrel percentage (11%).

What Contreras learned, sometimes the hard way, was the need to complement his four-seamer with breaking pitches. He planned to work on his changeup this offseason, after throwing it on 2.9% of his pitches. The ability to execute pitches when he didn’t have his best stuff is what impressed Shelton about Contreras, especially the slider that drew a 42.1% whiff rate and became his putaway pitch.

Roansy Contreras, Wicked 82mph Slider. ???? pic.twitter.com/eKSksLI5PM

— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2022

“A 22-year-old kid, he’s had times where he didn’t have the curveball at all, times where he didn’t have the fastball,” Shelton said. “The slider is a definite weapon but the fact that he’s been able to pitch without his best stuff at times, I think that’s a very, very good sign for us.”

Next season, Contreras expects to show his durability. He wants to pitch a full season, throw 200 innings and prove that, even at 23, he’s ready for a significant role in the starting rotation.

“Obviously, last year I wasn’t able to pitch as much as I wanted to, but to be able to go out here, be able to pitch all those outings, all those innings and be able to demonstrate what I have and be able to compete with these caliber of teams and this caliber of baseball, it felt great,” Contreras said. “To be honest with you, I feel like the biggest part that I can take away from that is how well it’s preparing me going into the future. It just brings more confidence, more awareness, more preparation going into the offseason of what things I need to continue to work on and develop. The confidence is the biggest builder right now.”

Kevin Gorman is a TribLive reporter covering the Pirates. A Baldwin native and Penn State graduate, he joined the Trib in 1999 and has covered high school sports, Pitt football and basketball and was a sports columnist for 10 years. He can be reached at kgorman@triblive.com.

Pirates A to Z: After starting in relief, Roansy Contreras relieved to finish season as starter (2024)

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