Last year, every time then Manager Clint Hurdle would reach for the bullpen phone in the dugout it was almost always a total crapshoot as to which pitcher, and more likely which version of each particular pitcher, would rise from his chair to begin warming up on the mound. In a season of inconsistencies, injuries, mismanagement and a virtual rotating door between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, the Pirates Bullpen became the epitome of all of these things wrapped into one tightly wound up ball, with a big giant bow on it. For the season the Pirates Relievers posted a 4.91 ERA (23rd), gave up 102 HRs (9th), walked 304 batters (4th) and struck out 687 (7th), while only producing 57 holds (28th) and blowing 24 saves (15th). By just looking at the numbers I don’t think I have to tell you that this isn’t going to get it done, even in a shortened season. So what has changed, what hasn’t and are there any real reasons for hope? Some of these questions may be easy to answer and what isn’t could certainly cause a little bit of pessimism to exist for the future, in the short term at least.
When you look in the Pirates Bullpen a familiar face, Justin Meccage, will be peering back at you. The Assistant Pitching Coach for the past two seasons and the Minor League Pitching Coordinator before that, Meccage has taken on a new role. However, with a new philosophy brought in by Pirates 1st Year Pitching Coach, Oscar Marin, changes have already started to take place and it is my belief that Meccage was retained because he embraces the use of technology, which was frowned upon by previous regime.
Some familiar faces also exist on the pitching staff; including Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz, Chris Stratton, Richard Rodriguez, Dovydas Neverauskas and Clay Holmes. Each of these guys have experienced success to some degree in the majors, but have also been known for their inconsistencies and struggles. Nick Burdi has returned from injury with a bang as he has regularly been caught on the gun throwing 99 mph+ and JT Brubaker is making a case for himself with a strong spring and summer, but is still quite unproven at the Major League level and has spent the majority of his time as a starter. Throw in veteran left-hander Robbie Erlin and once promising prospect Nick Turley for good measure and you have an unpredictable conglomeration of arms set to carry the load in 2020. Of course, Keone Kela and Blake Cederlind will figure into the mix if they ever make it on the field. However, until it is certain, they unfortunately cannot be counted on to make an impact.
Other players are waiting in the wings at the Pirates Alternative Training Site in Altoona, but many of them have little to no experience beyond AA, let alone in the majors. This is not saying that they can’t or won’t be able to perform, it just makes the outcome a little more unpredictable, which is unfortunate because this how the Pirates got into trouble last year; not enough depth when injuries arose. This scenario could easily be repeated during the season due to the possibility of normal injuries, coupled with the fact that a global pandemic is also taking place. Young arms could be called upon in high pressure situations, with more on the line than normal; less games to play equals less room for error.
So what are my expectations and hopes for the Pirates Relievers in a shortened 2020 season? Honestly it is not much different than it was prior to the shutdown in early March; clear evaluation of players with limited or no options, assessment of players returning from injuries, as well as those who have shown promise at times in their young careers and providing experience to those who could be relied on in the future to play a bigger role as the team moves forward with the rebuild/build/refresh. Of course this all sounds well and good until the rubber actually meets the road and the plan gets turned on its head. At that point in time Derek Shelton and Oscar Marin will face some unique challenges and their decision making abilities and new philosophies will truly be tested.