The Bullpen Piece Some May Have Forgotten About

The bullpen for the Pirates has been a series of moving parts over the last two seasons, and that trend will likely continue in 2021. But there was a time three years ago where the ‘pen was very dominant, featuring Felipe Vasquez, Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez, and eventually Keone Kela at the trade deadline. 

There was one other player that was very good for the Pirates at the time, by the name of Edgar Santana. Today, I’ll be looking at what the heck happened to him, and where he might fit once he makes his expected return to Pittsburgh this year. 

An international free agent signing all the way back in 2013, Santana made his Pirates debut in 2017 and pitched well in 18 innings of work, with a 3.50 ERA. In 2018, Santana finally got an Opening Day bullpen spot, and he didn’t miss the opportunity to show his stuff. Pitching in many different roles across 69 appearances for the Pirates, Santana pitched to the tune of a 3.26 ERA and was very crucial in the team’s successes leading up to the trade deadline. For those people who look at FIP, that number was also impressive, at 3.58.

Unfortunately, Santana injured himself near the end of the 2018 season to the point where he required Tommy John Surgery, meaning he would miss the entire 2019 campaign. He finally returned for Spring Training 2020, where he looked like he hadn’t missed any time, tossing 5 scoreless innings. At the end of June, right before the MLB came back for their 60-game season, Santana tested positive for boldenone, a Performance Enhancing Drug. 

This was a huge disappointment for him and not the first impression you want to make to the brand new organization. With the carousel of bad relievers (Del Pozo, Neverauskas, Bashlor) seeing high-leverage situations last year, it was almost a guarantee that we would have seen Santana at some point during the year. 

All of that being said, does Santana deserve a second chance coming into this season? Personally, I believe he does. This isn’t a case of somebody pitching really badly and then hoping he is able to get another shot. Santana is a guy who pitched really well the last time he was in a regular season game and then impressed last season in the spring. 

The last time we saw Santana in consistent regular season action, he was throwing a combination of four pitches, with his go-to being the 94-95 MPH sinker (44.5% of all pitches) and his highest strikeout pitch by far, the 86-87 MPH slider (39.0%). His fastball (13.0)% sat around 94 and he also added a changeup (88-89 MPH), which he only threw 33 total times in 2018. 

When Gary wrote about the bullpen earlier this week, he had Santana as a wild-card due to the lack of actual pitching action he’s gotten over the past few years. I agree with that, and I still see guys like NRI Chasen Shreve and 2020 breakout player Geoff Hartlieb in the Opening Day bullpen, but don’t sleep on a guy like Santana. A start in AAA Indianapolis would likely serve him well, and if he gets roughed up in the spring, he might fall lower on the depth chart. 

There is also uncertainty about the places of some of the guys that the Pirates acquired in trades, like Wil Crowe, Miguel Yajure, or even Cody Ponce, who pitched well in a couple of those doubleheaders last season. With Tyler Anderson being signed they are likely on the outside looking in rotation-wise, but will the staff give them a shot in long relief, especially considering that Cherington acquired them?

One of the hot topics on Pirates social media nowadays is the fact that people want to build trade value throughout the season to trade for prospects at the deadline. While I agree to some extent with a few players like Richard Rodriguez, I do not agree at all with Santana. For starters, he’s only 29 and doesn’t turn 30 until after the season. After this year, he still has three years of arbitration remaining, so it would be dumb to get rid of him now. That could obviously change based on how things go, but for now, at least keep him around.

There is one more scenario that I know I’m not the only one who thought of it, but I wanted to include it. Kyle Crick is a reliever who is on a very hot seat right now, and a bad spring could do it for him. His velocity dropped significantly last year, and if it doesn’t return, I would hope and expect him to be cut. If that ends up happening, that would open up a bullpen spot, allowing Santana or one of the other guys to slot in.

At the end of the day, this will be a spring-long battle, and whoever pitches the best might win. I do see Shelton and his staff giving everyone a fair evaluation, but I wonder if he’d give a slight advantage to the guys he was able to develop relationships and guys he was able to rely on in his first season rather than trust a guy who got suspended before all that even took place. I only see good things coming out of it, though, because too much depth is never a bad thing. 

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