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Paul Skenes is waiting for Pirates’ call while dominating Triple-A: ‘Trying to do whatever I need to do here’

INDIANAPOLIS — With the first pick in the 2023 Major League Baseball draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected right-handed pitcher Paul Skenes out of LSU. He was coming off a monster season in which he won the National Pitcher of the Year, the Dick Howser Trophy (national player of the year) and a College World Series championship. Oh, and he was the Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series. 

The ultimate goal, of course, is becoming a Major League Baseball player. He’s just one step away and he isn’t shy about saying that he thinks about it. 

“That’s obviously the goal, so I’m just trying to do whatever I need to do here to be prepared to succeed up there,” Skenes told CBS Sports. 

Isn’t he getting antsy, being this close but not yet there? 

“A little bit,” Skenes added. “But it just comes down to executing.” 

The execution has certainly been there for Skenes so far with Triple-A Indianapolis. He put up another stellar performance Thursday, allowing only one hit while striking out eight. He threw 65 pitches in 3 1/3 innings, as the Pirates very slowly ramp him up toward a starter’s workload. 

In all, Skenes has now only allowed five hits and four walks in 12 2/3 scoreless innings. He’s struck out —  are you ready for this? — 27. Yes, twenty-seven strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 57.4% of the batters he’s faced, which just sounds hilarious. Opposing hitters are slashing .116/.192/.140 against him, good enough for a laughable .332 OPS. 

The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Skenes is an imposing presence, too, before you even factor in the stuff. He’s regularly lighting up the radar gun into triple digits with the heater while mixing in his swing-and-miss slider along with a relatively new offering. Some have called it a change/sinker hybrid or even a sinker/splitter hybrid (think: Jhoan Duran’s “splinker”), but Skenes says it’s just a sinker. 

“It’s a sinker, but call it whatever you want,” he told CBS Sports. “It feels good. I didn’t throw it a ton [Thursday] but it feels really good.” 

But despite the dominance, Skenes is still sitting in Triple-A, waiting, while the Pirates keep the training wheels on his incredibly talented right arm, calling it workload management. Take note of the 12 2/3 innings in four starts, for example. He’s barely riding the bike at all.

Here are his innings totals and pitch counts by start, as the Pirates slow play him: 

  • 3 innings, 46 pitches
  • 3 innings, 44 pitches
  • 3 1/3 innings, 55 pitches
  • 3 1/3 innings, 65 pitches

Now look at those numbers and realize Skenes still hasn’t even allowed one run. Also remember he threw two complete games for LSU last season and he averaged more than 6 innings a game, adding up to a little over 122 innings before he was even drafted (he threw another 6 2/3 between three levels in the minors). With this level of dominance here in Triple-A, surely Skenes is unhappy every time he hears that he has to come out of the game early, right? 

“Yeah, for sure, but it’s also where we’re at in the season right now,” Skenes said.

Skenes doesn’t know the plan for the Pirates’ organization to ramp him up into higher pitch counts and he has “no idea” what the plan is for a possible promotion. 

Pirates general manager Ben Cherington recently offered up the following

“With Paul, we’ve been very intentional about how we’re building his volume coming into the season with a goal of really accomplishing two things,” Cherington said during his 93.7 The Fan radio show Sunday. “One is to try to get him to an appropriate total volume for 2024 coming off last year, when he pitched a full college season and then just a little bit of pro ball.

“We don’t want to go from zero to 100 right away. Paul’s so important to us long term, so we want to be really thoughtful about that.”

It certainly feels like he’s getting closer. Perhaps they’ll allow him to go another 10 pitches next time out to get to 75 and then an MLB debut with the Pirates might not be too far away. 

The Pirates have shown some competitiveness here in the early going of the 2024 season, sitting 11-11 heading into Monday’s action. It’s too early to watch the standings, but they’re only four games back in the NL Central, a division that appeared before the season to be wide open with all five teams having designs on contending deep into the season. And Skenes has been following along with the big-league club.

“Whenever I do get up, I don’t want to be playing for a losing team, so winning is nice and always helps everything,” he said. “Whether or not I’m up there, it’s great the team is winning and then my job is to help the team win whatever my role is there.” 

Given that they look like they could hang around in the race for a while, it seems unlikely the Pirates would bring Skenes up only to pull him after something like three innings, which would unnecessarily stress their bullpen during what they hope is a full season of contention. If he’s up, he should be on the mound for as long as possible.

Maybe the magic number to unlock a promotion is 75 pitches. Maybe it’s 100. Eventually, the Pirates will call his name and let him strut his stuff in The Show. 

“What good does it do anyone for him to keep dominating Triple-A for a whole season?” a scout told CBS Sports.

The last time the Pirates took a college arm No. 1 overall was Gerrit Cole, who was drafted out of UCLA in 2011. Cole moved quickly through the ranks and was making playoff starts in 2013. He was their ace in 2015 and an All-Star who finished fourth in Cy Young voting. Skenes hasn’t thought much about following in his footsteps, however. 

“Not a ton,” he said when asked if he thinks about Cole. “We want to create our own path of winning teams, and hopefully, we’re winning for a lot longer than they did. The goal is to win for a long time over the next several years.” 

That Pirates group from roughly a decade ago was an important one. They broke the dubious drought that was 20 consecutive seasons without posting a winning record. They were a playoff team for three straight seasons, too, though only advancing to the NLDS one time (they lost). Pittsburgh hasn’t made the postseason since, hasn’t won the division since 1992 and has never won the NL Central.

Alongside veteran All-Star Mitch Keller and promising youngster Jared Jones, Skenes will eventually give the Pirates a really nice 1-2-3 punch in the rotation, possibly even looking like three aces in a playoff rotation sometime very soon. Maybe even as soon as this year, even if there’s no hurry. Skenes is 21, Jones is 22 and the 28-year-old Keller is locked up through 2028. 

For now, Skenes is making silly putty of Triple-A hitters while gradually building volume. He’s just one step away from his goal of being a major leaguer.

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