The Pirates' 2020 Bullpen Could be Sneaky Good
Drama, injuries, fistfights, and felonies are not pleasant summaries of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen situation in 2019, but they are accurate ones. Sprinkle in a little mismanagement and you’ve got a recipe for disaster that Gordon Ramsay couldn’t fix.
The Pirates head into 2020, barring any changes, with so many questions about the team that it’s easy to forget the bullpen. However, a formidable unit of relievers can elevate an entire staff so the Pirates would do well to remember the importance of this crucial area.
Providing a quality bullpen was a real strength of the Huntington regime. He was a master at trading for or signing relievers who others had either given up on or underrated. This led to some solid staffs over the years and it shortened games.
Last season injuries were more than a storyline, they were the story. Prior to the season the Bucs already knew Edgar Santana would miss 2019 and it was quite a blow as he had emerged as a solid back of the bullpen option. Then came Nick Burdi and, while his sample size with the Pirates has been small due to his injury, he too looked to be a solid option. Keone Kela was both injured and disgruntled most of the season. Even upon his return toward the end of August, he was only used on every other day basis and eventually took over closing duties after he who shan’t be named (HWSBN) was arrested. There were others of course but many wouldn’t have been here without the previously mentioned injuries to begin with.
As we look ahead to next season, health alone could make the bullpen formidable and there are pieces already available internally that could fill some holes. Let’s take a look at the candidates and discuss what holes need filled. I’m going to start with the premise that the Pirates will keep a 12-man staff. I believe most teams in MLB will adopt that as a standard with the rosters expanding to 26 for 2020.
Keone Kela – While I personally believe the Pirates could benefit from being flexible with this role, I’ll assume the Bucs don’t care what I think, and they’ll name Kela the closer.
The Setup Guys
Kyle Crick – Crick had a very shaky season and ultimately ended on the IL after breaking his hand punching (HWSBN), which turned out to be richly deserved, but not advisable. Crick needs to locate his slider, when he does, he is nearly unhittable. When he doesn’t, Crick is little more than a walk machine as batters openly wait for a strike or a "get me over" fastball to hammer.
Richard Rodriguez – It was a poor start to the season for Richard, but the late bloomer went back to his strengths and became quite possibly the best option Clint Hurdle had when he picked up the phone. He thrives on high fastballs and his delivery has a hitch that hides the ball well.
Michael Feliz – Feliz figured it out in 2019, he was one of the few bright spots to point to as the season progressed. The fastball had life and movement with lively action on the finish. He has swing-and-miss stuff and, if properly cultivated and developed, he's a potential closer candidate.
Edgar Santana – Coming back from Tommy John surgery is never easy and it's impossible to know how a player will perform upon return. That said, Edgar had plus stuff and looked mature beyond his years in 2017. If he comes back to form, he could even push to close some games.
Long and Middle Relief
Chad Kuhl/Chris Stratton/Clay Holmes – Decisions get tough here and the Pirates need to not miss. Kuhl is, like Santana, returning from TJ surgery and a large unknown. He could start again, or the Bucs could elect to have him ease back in the pen. His upside is huge, but he may be a different pitcher than we’ve seen. Even when healthy, Kuhl profiled as a potential bullpen guy since length in starts was a frequent issue.
Stratton was acquired in a trade with the LA Angels to provide needed depth as starting pitchers began dropping like mayflies at PNC Park. He was injured almost immediately but, upon his return, showed some plus stuff and good command. He gave the Bucs some quality innings - largely in mop up duty.
Clay Holmes is a conundrum. If you ask his teammates, Clay has the best stuff on the staff. He is candidate to be Tyler Glasnow 2.0 if the Bucs aren’t careful and I’d love to see him work with a solid pitching coach to find control of that beautiful stuff he has. If the Pirates decide to add even another roster spot for the pitching staff and carry 13 they could keep two of these guys around, and that may very well be the play at least in the early going.
I’m sure the Pirates will make some moves before the season opens but this is who I believe to be the top candidates to fill the bullpen as we sit here today.
Notice anything missing? Yeah, no lefty. And if you look at the entire roster of active players on the 40 man, the Bucs only list two. Sam Howard and Williams Jerez, neither of whom would push any of the players I mentioned above. I’m of course not mentioning Steven Brault, but I think he did enough to avoid being in an early November bullpen article, although it’s possible it could shake out that way.
The first, and most obvious hole to fill would be a left-hander or two. It’s hard to fathom having that short porch in right field and go into a season with one lefty who might pitch every fifth day. I’ve heard Liriano’s name bantered about and surely the Pirates could do worse, but he faded toward the last quarter of the season and may not fit the needs they have at this time.
Next the Pirates need to decide what to do with Kela. If he can only pitch every other day, as he did last season, I’d say he can’t anchor the back-end of the pen. Moving him could be tricky too, teams might want to see him show he’s healthy and effective before pulling the trigger on a deal for him.
Last season scarred many of us as we watched several versions of “help” come up from the minors. I’ve left many of them out of the conversation, but the most interesting members could be Geoff Hartlieb and JT Brubaker. These are both power arms with excellent breaking ball movement. Command was an issue for Geoff and, like so many others, JT hit the medical tent and missed most of the season.
This seems like too many guys to fill the bullpen and it is, but the lesson learned from last season should be that you might need all of them.
The Pirates have a lot of solid options in the pen and there's an opportunity to get the relievers back to a team strength, but they’d be wise to understand the needs they have and fill them amply. A quality bullpen can be the difference between losing 30 close games and winning 30. New rules for MLB regarding the use of relief pitchers will cause some teams to move on from the “loogey” or lefty specialist. Each pitcher will need to face a minimum or three players before being replaced or the inning ends. This could open the door for the Pirates to pick up a player that was used, or underused, in that fashion previously.
No matter the direction the Pirates head, pitching and the bullpen in particular will be central to how they proceed and key to the success the club will experience in 2020.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007