1-12-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
There is no escaping how pathetic the Pirates bullpen was by the end of 2022. Even though the pen carried the team early on, a combination of asking the pen to do too much of the innings lift, and a lack of players with options caused a revolving door of waiver wire pickups, DFAs and players forced into roles they had no business occupying.
At first glance, it would appear the Pirates learned a lesson.
The bullpen is almost always the hardest element of the roster to nail down. Starters could become relievers, moving on from a bullpen arm isn’t often worth the same consternation as cutting an outfielder, and thankfully this year, the Pirates simply have a ton of options.
Today, lets go through who is on the 40, who I see coming North with the club at least right now, and who from outside the 40 that could find their way into the mix as the season plays out.
Have to start here, and we have to remember too guys like Chase De Jong who weren’t on it, and 3 weeks into the season were added. As we go through this list, it’s easy to see it’s more fleshed out than it was last year.
Chase De Jong
Yerry De Los Santos
Duane Underwood Jr.
Now that’s 15 players I think could find their way into a bullpen role, even if temporary in 2023. You’ll note there are some starters named there, and some who aren’t. I’ve chosen Velasquez because he’s been promised a shot at starting, but it’s not what he’s been, Oviedo largely because Thompson being DFAd creates a spot for long relief potentially, and Ortiz because if his secondary pitches don’t evolve, they may want to just cut bait and turn him into a killer back end piece.
Just options, not predictions. That’s for another section.
Now, who makes the 26-man?
The first thing to do is recognize how many pitchers the Pirates will likely go north with. I believe they will choose 13. 5 starters, 8 relievers will make that up.
Supposing a rotation of Keller, Brubaker, Hill, Contreras, Velasquez to start we need to focus on the 8.
David Bednar – Closer
Colin Holderman – Late Inning Set Up
Jarlin Garcia – Late Inning Set Up
Jose Hernandez – Rule 5, Start out Middle Relief
Robert Stephenson – Middle to Late Relief
Duane Underwood Jr. – Middle Relief
Wil Crowe – Long to Middle Relief
Chase De Jong – Long to Middle Relief
This is where I think they’d start, but I don’t think this will be where they sit all year. First of all, Holderman’s next healthy season will be his first. Stephenson and Underwood shouldn’t be locks. Crowe and De Jong don’t have long histories of being good.
What really makes this bullpen stronger in 2023 is who didn’t make this list. I constructed this with guys who don’t have options for the most part. Reason being, let them eat the early season work load, and reinforce them later with some of the live arms you stored in AAA.
This leaves us with Yohan Ramirez, Colin Selby, Dauri Moreta, Yerry De Los Santos as immediate guys who could get calls. As Pirates starters push their way up or performance dictates you can add names like Velasquez, maybe even Brubaker. It’s pretty clear that Hill and Velasquez will be traded if nothing else at some point, so room will be made.
How About Non-40 Guys?
This is going to be a long list, because I’m going to include the NRI (Non-Roster Invitees) we know about as of now, there could be even more.
Tyler Chatwood, Daniel Zamora, Rob Zastryzny, Angel Perdomo, JC Flowers, Blake Cederlind, Tahnaj Thomas, Hunter Stratton, Cam Aldred, Nathan Webb, Cameron Junker
Now, out of all those guys, I don’t see much opportunity out of Spring, but as the season rolls on, Flowers, Cederlind, Thomas and Junker are all super interesting.
With the NRI’s The Pirates have clearly focused on getting some lefty arms in to look at. Zamora, Zastryzny, and Perdomo are all left handers. None of them have options, none are of course on the 40-man, but any of them could prove they deserve a place. Reality dictates what the team would really hope here is some of them perform relatively well and decide they’re ok sticking around in AAA.
Tyler Chatwood has a ton of MLB experience, if any of them are going to threaten our 26-man list, it might be him, but he’d have to beat out Stephenson or Underwood in my mind but he hasn’t pitched since 2021, and that was only 32 innings.
Still, the Pirates have shown us something this offseason, they aren’t going to hold onto guys they simply don’t see as being all that good. The DFA of Thompson and Wilson, well, let’s just say for those of you constantly looking for this front office to act differently, that was different.
Should They Get More?
They certainly could. I personally would feel much better about having one more lefty for instance. Being that one of theirs is a Rule 5 pickup, thing is, if they pick one up it has to be a lock, and it has to be at the expense of Underwood, De Jong or Stephenson in my mind. Brad Hand, Andrew Chafin, Zack Britton, Justin Wilson, and Will Smith all would be interesting to me, and all should be relatively affordable.
Bullpens are usually the last thing to really come together, and they are NEVER just a group of 7 or 8 guys who kill it all year. You need most of that 40-man list, you need guys with options to bounce up and down, you need competent options to fill in for underperformance and injury.
Last year, the Pirates shorted themselves in this aspect of the roster so badly they were forced to rush Roansy Contreras into action, ultimately robbing him of starting innings later in the season and creating that weird mid season send down situation.
It forced them to be in on just about every guy who got waived it felt like for a while there.
Now I will say, the starting rotation should be stronger in 2023 and hopefully that causes less stress on the bullpen which should help their effectiveness even if they weren’t a stronger group, which at least on paper, they are.
Of everything I’ve mentioned in this piece, one thing I can’t possibly know is will Derek Shelton use these guys in more defined roles, or do they at least have better redundancies in place to handle some of these roles. By the end of 2022, the qualifications for closer looked like essentially do you have an arm, and do all 5 fingers on your pitching hand work currently.
The innings math never worked last year, and the Pirates made it worse by being overly cautious with what they did have.