How Does the Current Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen Fit Into Future Plans?

On October 30th of last year, interim General Manager Kevan Graves, who had the job temporarily after Neal Huntington was fired, made an intriguing acquisition. The pickup was a waiver claim by the name of Sam Howard. He was a southpaw that had struggled in the majors and Triple-A the past few years. Little did the Pirates know that Howard would become a main part of the bullpen in 2020.

After the Pittsburgh Pirates’ recent game on Sunday, it really brought to the spotlight how solid some of these underrated arms have been. After the 6 scoreless innings against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh’s bullpen has now been 7th best in the MLB (3.27 ERA) since Miguel Del Pozo’s last appearance in a Pirates uniform on August 8th. But where there are positives, there are also negatives. So today, I’m here to talk about where this year’s bullpen arms might fit into the future of the team, if at all.

Locks for 2021 Bullpen:

Well, I can’t believe I’m saying this but currently, I see just two locks for next year’s ‘pen, and the first one isn’t currently on the active roster. I’m talking about Nick Burdi. The presumptive closer entering 2020 went down with a right elbow injury early in the season. This drew concerns from many in the organization and in the fanbase due to Burdi’s lengthy injury history that includes a Tommy John surgery and a thoracic outlet surgery last year. Fortunately, the trainers and medical staff over in Pittsburgh believe that surgery will not be required and that Burdi will make a full recovery to be healthy in time for next year’s spring training. 

The other man has been pitching for the Pirates this season, and despite having a terrible season last year, Geoff Hartlieb has really come into his own to pitch some important innings for the team. Terrible might be an understatement for Hartlieb, as he gave up 35 earned runs in 35 innings. That is a 9.00 ERA in a not very small sample size, and fans started to think that Hartlieb was another lost cause, another bust. But Hartlieb didn’t give up, and he got right to work with new pitching coach Oscar Marin. Together, they agreed that scrapping the four-seam and rolling with a sinker-slider combination, with a rare changeup mixed in as well, would be the best way to go. 

After another terrible showing in spring where Hartlieb allowed 8 runs in 7.1 innings, things started to look bleak. He initially started this 60 game season at the alternate site in Altoona. But a few days into the season, Hartlieb was called up due to some early-season injuries. Since, he has been better than expected, with an elite 1.96 ERA in 18.1 innings. If he can keep this going, which I really believe he will, Hartlieb will establish himself as a reliable bullpen piece. 

The Rest of the Bullpen:

There is no way anybody can predict what would happen after those two, but we can speculate what might happen. Here’s the rest of the bullpen, and where they might be at the beginning of next year. 

Tyler Bashlor- Yikes. Or is it? The overall numbers for Bashlor are bad, yes, with 7 runs given up in 7.2 innings, but he’s had 3 appearances out of his 7 total where all of his runs have been given up. If you remember, I wrote about him when the Pirates originally claimed him from the Mets, and I said that walks have come back to bite him in past seasons. Well, it seems like that has continued to be sort of an issue, as he’s had 3 free passes so far. I still like his stuff, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to think he’s going to be good. It wouldn’t hurt the Pirates to give him a shot for the remainder of this year and next spring training. 

Dovydas Neverauskas- If you cringed reading that name, you wouldn’t be the only one. I mean, the amount of times people that have thought this man was surely gone is crazy. No amount of excuses can be made of why Neverauskas is still on this team. To put things into perspective, he’s had ERAs of 8.00 and 10.61 the past two years, and an 8.40 ERA so far this year after giving up an additional 3 runs in Tuesday’s game against the White Sox. After everything that has happened, you would think the Pirates would let him go. Instead, they kept him for three years, and it doesn’t look like Pittsburgh has any intention on getting rid of him anytime soon. I would say that he wouldn’t be here next year, but you never know, the Pirates could say “they still see potential”, and he would be back in the bullpen next year, taking a spot from Blake Cederlind and others. 

Kyle Crick- This is one of the more interesting pitchers, because just two years ago, he had a 2.39 ERA in 60.1 innings. Last year, his ERA went up to 4.96, but it included a right triceps injury and an injury to his throwing hand, so the thought was that he would recover to potentially get somewhere close to his 2018 season. At the beginning of this season, he allowed 4 unearned runs in his first appearance, which were actually because of errors made by him, and he allowed the game winning double to Ryan Braun in his second game. Crick actually has a 0.00 ERA this season, but 5 runs have been unearned, but it’s been partially his fault. Not to mention his velocity is down on both his slider (high 70’s from low 80’s) and his fastball (low 90’s from mid 90’s). Unfortunately, this will never change, unless he works hard enough over the offseason to maybe get that velocity up a bit. Crick is still arbitration eligible, and I do think he has a strong chance to return next year, but he’ll have a lot to prove in the next 3 weeks and Spring Training 2021. 

Michael Feliz- Forgot about him? Well, you’re probably not alone. He was the one who gave his jersey number to Derek Holland, and then while wearing his new number, he pitched 1.2 innings and gave up 6 runs along the way. Then, out of nowhere, Feliz was put on the 10-day and quickly the season ending 45-day injured list. There’s not much to take from there, and he did have a 3.99 ERA in a full season’s worth of work in 2019. Feliz is a free agent in 2022, so a return for next year would definitely be likely, unless he fell off of a cliff. 

Derek Holland- I’m not going to say much here. He’s been decent out of the bullpen since moving from the rotation without an announcement he was moving to the rotation. Holland was a nice veteran presence for this season, but there is no future for him in Pittsburgh. 

Clay Holmes- This was another young arm finally getting his shot, until a right forearm strain a week into this 60-game schedule ended his season. Holmes had out of this spring looking good, with 3.1 scoreless innings with some really solid stuff put on display. He continued that into the beginning of this season, throwing an inning and a third scoreless. It’s unfortunate what happened, but given his good work in both spring training and the way people thought about him, Holmes should be given another opportunity. 

Sam Howard- I don’t know where to start with Sam Howard. Slingin’ Sammy, as he has been referred to many times on the Pirates broadcast, is quite literally slinging the ball through the strike zone, and he’s doing it quite effectively. For a little background, Howard had been in the Rockies’ organization the past few years, pitching in two of the hardest ballparks in professional sports. He’s pitched at not only Coors Field, but in Albuquerque with Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate. Howard, like Hartlieb who I mentioned earlier, was not one of the 30 men to head west to St. Louis back on July 24th, but was good enough to get a callup at the beginning of August. He impressed from the start, when he struck out 3 over two innings. Not to mention those were extra innings, with the 2020 extra innings rules. Since, Howard has kept things rolling, with a 2.30 ERA in 15.2 innings. The fact that he’s a lefty really helps his case to return next near, and if he keeps pitching well, that will make it harder for the Pirates not to choose him. 

Keone Kela- He came into the season being named the closer, so the thought was that he could help the Pirates while helping his trade value at the same time. Instead, Kela only got into three games, and he gave up a run in his first appearance in Cincinnati. Kela’s all but gone at this point, and in my opinion, I think that Cherington should’ve had a bit more urgency to trade him at the deadline. Now, Kela will walk for nothing. 

Richard Rodriguez- Rodriguez has such a great story. He went from working at a family owned farm to pitching in the highest level of professional baseball there is. Even when he got to the majors it wasn’t easy, as he was cast aside by the Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates took a chance on him, and he’s flourished since his arrival. 2018, his rookie year, was his best one, as he pitched in 63 games and he had a 2.57 ERA. Last year the home run killed him early, but he settled down to post a 3.72 ERA at the end of the year. Rodriguez has gotten his chance to close out some games and besides an Eric Sogard homer, he’s been pretty perfect as a closer. He has a few more years of arbitration as well, so he’ll be back next year, potentially as the Pittsburgh Pirates closer. 

Chris Stratton- I have always been particularly high on Stratton, and based on what I’ve seen from him, I’m glad that I was. After he was traded from the Angels last year, he started to figure things out in a bullpen role, which is much different than his spot with Los Angeles in the rotation. 

In 28 appearances, he had a 3.66 ERA and proved himself to be a reliable long relief/middle relief option. To begin this year, solidity has once again been the name of his game, as he’s pitched to the tune of a 3.43 ERA. He would have been another decent trade piece, but he’s not a free agent until 2024, so he could be a mainstay in the bullpen for a couple more years to come. 

Nick Tropeano- This has been another under-the radar waiver claim, something that Cherington and company have been doing a lot this year (Alford, Davis, etc.). The three times he’s appeared in a Pirates uniform, Tropeano has had to take on sort of a mop up role. It started when he pitched 4 scoreless against a White Sox team that’s had one of the best offenses in the league so far this year. Next, he pitched 2.2 scoreless innings against a pretty decent Brewers lineup, and he actually earned himself a win. Tropeano finally cracked in his most recent appearance on September 2nd, when he gave up a home run to Javier Baez, but there were already two on with nobody out, so it would have been hard to come away with a clean inning. The early returns for Tropeano have been surprisingly good, and I do see a lot of similarities to Stratton, with both of them being struggling starters who may be better suited for a stretched-out bullpen role. Tropeano deserves a shot, and I’d like to see him get more looks, but those looks have to come as a reliever. He will not be an effective starter if he goes back to that role. 

Nik Turley- Last but definitely not least (ahem, Neverauskas), we have the Jacob Stallings doppelganger, Nik Turley. He was a waiver claim from the Minnesota Twins, not to be confused with Nick Burdi, who was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Phillies before being traded to the Pirates. Turley had a brief stint with Minnesota back in 2017, and he struggled, giving up 22 runs in 17.2 innings. After that, it would be a rough road for Turley, as he was busted for Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) in 2018, and then he had Tommy John surgery shortly after. That held him out until spring training of this year. The lefty pitched 3.1 scoreless innings, and that ultimately earned him a spot on the expanded roster to start the year. Since, Turley, who has a glare that could kill you, has not pitched badly, with a 4.11 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched. He has his first year of arbitration coming up this year, so it will be interesting to see how the Pirates handle him moving forward. 

So I guess the last question would be, who out of the people that I didn’t list would be under consideration for the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen in 2021? Well, you could look to Nick Mears, Brandon Waddell, and Cody Ponce. All three have already had their first crack to pitch in the big leagues, and Ponce has had the opportunity to start twice. Ponce will probably get the call first, and I would be intrigued to watch him pitch out of the bullpen. But what about Blake Cederlind? Well, the hope is that we see him in the coming weeks, but time is running out so it better happen sooner rather than later. Then things might happen with free agency, although I’m not expecting any major changes, at least not for the 2021 season. 

At the end of it all, this off-season could see the Pirates’ bullpen completely changed (hopefully younger), or it could just stay the same.

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