Poppin’ Rolaids: A Call to the Pen

8/11/22 – By Corey R. Shrader @CoreyShrader on Twitter

The Pirates bullpen has been mentioned quite a few times on social media lately. Combining this “buzz” with the Pirates deadline acquisitions, I thought it would be worth taking a tour through the bullpen options currently on the team as well as some in the minor leagues.
The intent was to cover the players that I feel will most likely be a part of the 2022 bullpen as well as the 2023 season at minimum. Bullpens are notoriously tough to predict, so this could all look silly in short order, but yet we must try. Without further introduction, here are the current bullpen options for the Pirates.

Right-Handed Options

David Bednar – Most fans are well aware of the hometown boy and what he can do. Despite some rumblings at the 2022 trade deadline, Bednar should remain a fixture in the back end of the Pirates bullpen for some time, not even becoming arb eligible until 2024 and avoiding free agency until 2027.
Bednar has carried his 2021 dominance over to 2022. He is getting hit harder this year, but even that isn’t saying much for batters’ success overall. His four-seam fastball (FF) is getting hit more in 2022, but also inducing more whiffs. This could be due to a combination of adding horizontal movement to his heater (+1.3”) that may be impacting his locations and/or how it is playing in the zone versus the 2021 heater. Even though the 2022 version of his FF is not as dominant, his main secondary’s compliment it well making his full arsenal of FF/FS/CU a whiff generating machine. Bednar should be the guy slamming
the door shut for the next several seasons.

Wil Crowe – Crowe was converted from a starter to a reliver in 2022 and he has really begun to come in to his own in that role. The team tweaked Crowe’s pitch usage in this change and he now features primarily a slider & change up as really effective offerings garnering 35.5%/34.2% whiff rates. The repertoire is seeing him us the sinker as his primary fastball and it is working pretty well and getting soft contact. While I would be skeptical of Crowe having a ton of success in the closer role, he could likely fill
in well enough if needed given his ability to draw weak contact.
Crowe should be around for quite awhile too, much like Bednar, Crowe does not hit arb years until 2024 and free agency until 2027.

Yerry De Los Santos – De Los Santos has had a track record of being a successful relief pitcher all through the minor leagues. Seeing him having early success at the major league level is not particularly surprising. Armed with a hard slider (95.3 avg) and a put away slider (36.5% whiff), he should continue to have success given his ability to throw strikes, miss bats, and induce ground balls. Yerry is just getting his first taste of the MLB, but he has the look of a quality bullpen piece that could continue to develop in to a back-end RP.

Colin Holderman – Holderman came to Pittsburgh via the NY Mets in the Vogelbach trade prior to the 2022 deadline. Fangraphs had Holderman ranked as the Mets #10 prospect this season and as a relief pitcher he has flashed some ability in his limited MLB work. Sporting a 24.7/11.0 K%/BB%, he needs to trim some of those walks, but his effectiveness is evidenced by his 1.74 ERA (2.83 FIP, 3.44 xERA).
His pitch mix is reliant on a sinker/cutter/slider. His cutter/slider being the primary weapons thus far, sporting whiff rates both over 40% and limiting opposing wOBAs to .079 & .157 each (aka- obscenely good results for Holderman thus far). The cutter & slider mirror each other well from Holderman’s hand leading to a good deal of deception. The cutter also has a great deal more horizontal break than most, so it lends to way it plays off of his slider making for a very nice pairing. The sinker has got pretty good results thus far, he throws it hard enough that if location is on, it should be average at least but the
xStats on it show it will probably see some regression and start falling for more hits.
He should be around for a while and looks like a bet to be a productive bullpen piece.

Johan Oviedo – Another new arrival to Pittsburgh, brought in the Quintana trade. I am aware that the organization wants to give Oviedo the chance to start again, and I think that I agree that it is worth trying. I am mentioning him with the bullpen group because I believe he would be a good option there.
In fact, he has already shown promise there in St. Louis, much like Holderman did in New York. Trying Oviedo makes sense given that he flashed a few high-upside starts in AAA this year, but I believe his control issues (10.3 BB% in 10 starts at AAA) will make him better suited for the pen. Oviedo is primarily a two pitch pitcher, working a four-seam/slider combo most often, but his curveball has flashed very nice results in its more limited deployment (31.8% whiff/.167 BA/.189 wOBA) he just simply does not throw it for strikes enough to use regularly. Oviedo’s fastball is particularly perplexing because he combines a low release point (5.3 ft from the ground) with well above average extension (7.1 ft from the rubber), but it does not yield quality results.
Oviedo’s FF traits (release height + extension) mean he SHOULD have a chance to have a very gnarly FF, but the shape of the pitch simply does not work well for him. I would like to see him throw his SL much more, like, a lot more, close to 50% of the time, develop a sinker or a cutter, and rely far less on his four seamer. I cannot see him truly finding success as a starter with his current arsenal & control issues.
Oviedo will be around for a while too, much like Holderman, it remains to be seen if he can take off as a starter or if he ends up in the pen again. I would wager on the latter.

Duane Underwood Jr. – DUJ is an interesting pitcher. Looking at his 2022 arsenal he throws three different fastballs, a sinker/cutter/four seamer complimented by his best overall offerings his change up and curveball. The sinker is essentially a new pitch. A cursory glance would show it to not a great pitch, but looking closer, it does generate grounders and modest contact as intended. One issue with the pitch is that he does not throw it for enough strikes (9.1 K%). The contact it creates is interesting with a low average EV of 83.2 and just a 4 degree launch angle, so taking that into account with the fact that DUJ’s xISO, xSLG, and barrel rates against are strong (88th , 71st , and 96th percentiles) combined with the fact that his FIP is 3.02, I think it is fair to assume that he is being plagued by both
bad defense and singles as of right now.
DUJ’s cutter, change up, and curveball are all effective in getting whiffs (30.9%, 45.9%, and 29.7%). Combine these with an improving feel for executing the sinker, hopefully better defense, and some more “luck” on batted balls, and DUJ could very well be a strong bullpen piece. He is under team control until 2026 and hits arb in 2023. I think he will almost certainly be given a fair shake to be a factor in this bullpen.

Chase De Jong – De Jong is sporting a 2.03 ERA, but under the hood things don’t look great. He’s got a 4.23 xERA, 4.78 FIP, and a .192 BABP propping that eye catching ERA up. There is not a lot to see here. De Jong has a pretty good slider, so it is not surprising that he has had success in the minor leagues. It is a good offering. At the MLB level it racks up whiffs at a 43.2% clip, gets weak contact, and performs really well in general against hitters regardless of handedness. Really not a lot to like beyond that slider.
His four seamer gets a lot of spin, but he has subpar extension and a fairly high release point making it not particularly interesting. Not certain he is much beyond a depth AAAA arm.

Tyler Beede – Former first round draft pick, was DFA’d by San Francisco early in the 2022 season and snapped up by the Pirates. To be completely honest; I am not certain what Beede can be. His time in Pittsburgh has been solid; 3.28 ERA and a 3.90 FIP across 35.2 IP. However, his K/9 is a paltry 5.80 and his BB/9 sitting at 3.53. He flashes some interesting things at times but also can be equally frustrating.
Beede has 3 offerings that feature whiff rates over 30%, which is quite interesting! But his fastballs (four seam/sinker) have both been sort of poor. However, I think Beede deserves a longer look in Pittsburgh due to the big velocity and interesting characteristics of his FF (high active spin, good extension, low release) and his secondaries flashing the ability to generate whiffs. I am fully ready to admit that I have no idea what will become of Beede, but there are some things there that make you go “hmm.”

Yohan Ramirez – Ramirez has a good slider and a fastball with interesting characteristics (great extension w/low release). He has only pitched 4 innings with the Pirates. With the Bucs Ramirez has seemed to have abandoned his four seamer and is throwing a hard sinker, which looks promising. The Pittsburgh sample size is small, but I think it is interesting at the very least.

Left-Handed Options

Dillon Peters – Felt the need to briefly mention Peters because he is one of the few LHPs in the pen and he is under team control for a long time (FA 2027/ARB 2024). Truth be told, to me, he looks like a lefty specialist arm only at this point. Does not have any particularly effective offerings vs RHH besides his curveball. LHH however are held to a .160/.246/.260 and a .231 wOBA against him. He is currently on the IL with elbow soreness, so it remains to be seen what his status will be rest of 2022 and even 2023.
Should the team be willing and able to acquire the services of another lefty pen arm, I think they will and could safely move on from Peters should they choose to.

Manny Bañuelos – Former Yankee, former Brave, former Angel, former Dodger, former White Sox, former second time Yankee, and now Pittsburgh Pirate. Had a pretty poor July in Pittsburgh posting a 8.10 ERA, 5.21 FIP. In just 3 August appearances he has looked better in just 3.2 IP with a 0.00 ERA, 2.57 FIP. To be quite honest, I am not sure he will be with the team beyond 2022 unless he performs exceptionally well rest of season, so I am not going to go too deep on him beyond saying he is a lefty and they don’t have many.

Eric Stout – Eric Stout appears to be a LOOGY, but we haven’t seen a whole lot of him, just 6.0 IP. But his results against LHH seem to be fine (.182 BA, .167 OBP, .118 SLG, .137 wOBA) I do not think he should be part of the team’s long-term plans, but I guess he could be? I do not assume he will be.

Minor League RPs

Blake Cederlind – Cederlind flashed some interesting potential back in 2020, but since that time he has had Tommy John surgery and just underwent another elbow procedure to remove loose bodies from his right elbow. If he is ever healthy enough to contribute, perhaps there is something there. At this point, I would not count on much of any contribution from Cederlind, but would absolutely welcome it.

Nick Mears – Mears owns a big fastball & big time extension on the offering. Peripherals like Mears and it is easy to see that he has strikeout stuff (12.91 k/9 in AAA), but he is also coming back from an elbow injury. Maybe we will get a shot to see Mears late in 2022, but hard to count on it.

Jeremy Beasley – On the 40 man roster, it’s hard to know what he could be, but being on the roster makes him at least someone to consider.

Tahnaj Thomas – Thomas has moved to the pen and has had a pretty good season at AA. It would not be surprising to see him quickly excel in that role given his quality stuff. May be an option as soon as 2023.

I must admit that I kind of like the potential of this bullpen. Predicting bullpen success year to year is difficult, though. Outside of Bednar, really anything could happen. However, I think there are enough other pieces that read like they are for real here. It is unwise to bet on everyone taking a step forward, but I think the overall depth of options should see a few of these guys emerge and/or take a step forward.
The obvious defect is a big lacking in quality of left-handed options. With this organization it is not a good idea to rely on them signing free agents as a big part of the strategy, but I refuse to think the team will go in to 2023 with Peters, Banuelos, Stout, Beasley as their only LHP options. But hey, crazier things have happened.
Pittsburgh has a chance to have a solid or at least fun bullpen. Let’s hope it is one of the strengths we are talking about for an improved 2023 Pirates club. If not, maybe we can come together again in article format to talk about where it all went wrong!

6 thoughts on “Poppin’ Rolaids: A Call to the Pen

  1. Frankly none of the lefties in the pen deserve a roster spot but neither do ramirez Beede or Dejong there are better or at least possibly better options I the minors let’s see if Cruz or so.e of the other AA or AAA youngsters can do better

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    1. I am mostly with you on the lefties. They all appear to be there simply because they are left handed and can, at the very least get left-handed hitters out. Unfortunately, I assume we see at least 1-2 of them next year.

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      1. Sorry – hint reply too soon. With regards to Beede & Ramirez, they are fringe. But they do have some pitches with interesting characteristics and/or some upside that could pop still. De Jong feels very much like filler and should shuttle between AAA/MLB as long as he is around.

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  2. Great stuff, Corey! You make a strong case for five or six righties and no lefties. They’ll have to get one or two lefties somehow. NH was great at cobbling together bullpens with guys I had never heard of, which I imagine the coaches deserved tremendous credit for too. Then again, results under Meccage (since 2018 as at least assistant) have been mixed. Anyway, it’s possible.

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    1. Thank you, Zak. The righties are most definitely more compelling. It is more plausible that a few of them can figure things out. The lefties….not great. Keeping Peters or Stout just to face lefties, maybe. They absolutely SHOULD add a lefty that can get out both RHH/LHH. I sort of doubt they will given that those players are in high demand league wide.

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