The Pirates obviously improved every facet of the ball club way back in the early 2010’s as the window became apparent. Quite possibly the most underrated yet most important part of that window opening was on the mound.
People often point to AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano, make no mistake those two were key to the success of those clubs but the fact that from the 6th inning on opponents were rarely going to add to a lead or cut into a deficit because of the lights out bullpen the Pirates tossed out was arguably even bigger.
They aren’t there yet clearly, but they also aren’t as far away from having a well rounded and effective bullpen again as many assume. After watching 2020 play out, trust me, I get why that’s the assumption, but man that was a beat up roster in general.
Today I’d like to look at the options to make the 26-man roster in the Pirates bullpen, and by way of showing you who might not make it, illustrate the depth they’ve built up to weather a storm of injuries.
Before we dig in, let’s talk numbers. They’ll probably keep 13 pitchers on the active roster and even if I’m wrong we’ll use that as the premise as our starting point. Subtract the 5 spots for starters and you’re left with 8 slots for relievers
The Locks (4)
Truthfully, there shouldn’t be any but we all know contract situation and experience will play in here so I’m not going to get cute and pretend anyone could go as we build out this list.
Richard Rodriguez – Rich Rod is remembered for giving up homeruns, and he certainly has struggled with that aspect of the game. When he’s on he induces pop ups with his high fastball, when he isn’t he gives up big flies. His overall picture though, is one of a quality bullpen piece. In 164 games he is a 1.2 WAR player with a 3.41 ERA. All of this also makes him a likely trade piece too, but if he stays, he plays.
Chris Stratton – Spin rate champion! This is a whole lot like Erik Gonzalez and his hard hit rate, but it’s a fact that Stratton can spin it like few in the league. All of this has amounted to a 2.1 WAR player and he’s largely outperformed that as his overall number is dragged down by horrific starting stats with the Giants and Angels. As a reliever he’s been really solid and I think rumors of stretching him out to start again should probably be over at this point.
Michael Feliz – How is he a lock right? I don’t disagree but he has no options and signed with the club for 1 million dollars. He’s underwhelmed here and struggled with control since his arrival but he wouldn’t survive waivers. The Pirates like that Michael took the initiative to go out and work on his mechanics independently this off season and like the reports as to the results. The expectation is a slight uptick in his already impressive velocity coupled with more control. We shall see but I think he makes the team regardless.
Luis Oviedo – This one is simple. I’ll tell you about him anyway but this one all comes down to Luis being a Rule 5 pick up. The Mets actually selected him as it looks like the Pirates made a side deal to have the Mets do their dirty work here by picking him and immediately selling his rights to the Pirates. If you don’t understand how the rule works, the Pirates have to keep him on the roster is the most simplified way to put it. He has zero service time, experience starting and out of the pen and because of all his experience being varied, we have zero clue how the club plans to use him. A mid to high 90s fastball in his quiver and a need to improve his breaking stuff will necessitate a healthy dose of kid gloves with Oviedo but if they make it through 2021 with him on the roster, they pick up a top ten talent from the Indians essentially for free.
The Very Likely
Let’s keep our running total alive here. We used up 4 spots on our “locks” and that leaves us room for 4 more.
Kyle Crick – You all know Mr. Crick, which is more than I can say for most of this list. I can’t put him in the lock list because quite simply if he doesn’t have his fastball again, he can’t be one of them. Nothing works without it. The slider doesn’t bite the same, the two seam doesn’t move, the high heat get’s clobbered and that’s all if he manages to throw it over the plate. It would really show me something if Crick is only hitting 91-93 on the gun and got cut. Obviously, if Crick can show he’s back, he is the most logical player on the roster to start out as the closer so he’s worth hoping for.
Chasen Shreve – Left handed free agent signing who could just as easily start in AAA as he signed a minor league deal, but he has much more experience than any other lefty in the system and the Bucs will give him every opportunity to make the club.
David Bednar – Acquired in the Joe Musgrove trade, David is a hometown kid from Mars, PA. Not that where he’s from should really factor in, especially when his 95+ MPH fastball speaks much louder. He has brief experience hasn’t been stellar, but I think he has a great chance to make the club and fill a back end role.
The Last Spot
Yeah. This could go to a long man who doesn’t make the rotation like Wil Crowe, Carson Fulmer, Cody Ponce or Miguel Yajure. You can even toss in longshots like Clay Holmes, Sean Poppen or Chase De Jong.
Maybe they’d like to have more than one lefty. That leads you to one of Sam Howard or Austin Davis making the club. Maybe I’m wrong about Shreve in the first place and he’s down here instead of up there. Even if you change the names, the conversation is the same.
Geoff Hartlieb – is probably my leader in the clubhouse. He really showed he had a lot to offer in 2020. In fact if you made of list of which Pirates impressed in 2020, he’d be on the very short list.
Blake Cederlind & Nick Mears – Both of these guys are talented high upside players and I’d be shocked to not see both of them in Pittsburgh before 2021 is through. Either one of them could wind up being a closer or at the very least back of the bullpen guy.
Tyler Bashlor – I can’t see him surviving the 40-man if I’m honest. As I discussed yesterday in the Bubble player conversation, when the NRI players make the team, corresponding moves will cause players like this to no longer be in the picture. That doesn’t mean he won’t remain in the system however, just the risk.
Edgar Santana – I have no idea where to slot him. We haven’t seen him pitch in so long he could be the closer or nothing as he returns from TJ followed by PE drug suspension back to back. (Thanks to my friend @KG_55VFTG on Twitter for pointing out my omission)
What all this means is no matter how they ultimately build this bullpen, there will be capable players in AAA. This is not something the Pirates have had in years and it makes the overall organization stronger.
Rebuilds are tough for fans to go through, understandably, but when you steady yourself on the mound and look professional out of the bullpen you can at least make it more competitive.
Another angle on all this I didn’t really address is the trust in the starting rotation. I don’t think there is much, nor should there be. When building the bullpen they could be smart to include multiple long men, maybe that’s a niche Stratton fills well, maybe Ponce, either way there are so many factors involved in building this aspect and no one position will undergo more day to day shifts, call ups, send downs as well. Suffice to say, they’ll need to keep 8, but they’ll use more like 15 IF they stay healthy.
All of that and I’m not even touching trades.