A veteran left-handed reliever that was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training is impressing thus far for the Pittsburgh Pirates
During the offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed veteran reliever Tyler Lyons to a minor league contract. The left-handed pitcher had spent his entire professional career with the St. Louis Cardinals. This was before being designated for assignment by the Red Birds last summer.
Despite being signed to a minor league contract, Lyons was going to be given a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So far this spring, Lyons has been impressive and he has done all he can do to earn a spot in the Opening Day bullpen.
Last season, Lyons struggled to the tune of of an 8.64 ERA and a 5.02 FIP in 16 2/3 innings pitched for the Cardinals. Lyons struggled with a shoulder issue that led to a decrease in velocity last season, which was likely a driving force behind his struggles.
In 2017, Lyons was lights out for the Cardinals. In 54 innings pitched he posted a 2.83 ERA, 2.86 FIP, and a 1.0 fWAR. He also struck out 30.9% of batters faced. If Lyons can find this form again, the Pirates will have another weapon in an already strong bullpen.
In both 2015 and 2016 Lyons posted a sub-3.80 ERA. He also struck out 24% of batters faced or higher in each of these two seasons. So, the success of 2018 was nothing new to Lyons.
So far this spring, Lyons has looked more like his pre-2018 self.
In three games this spring, Lyons has pitched 3 innings for the Pirates. He has allowed a run on three hits, a walk, and a strikeout. Most importantly, his velocity issues from 2018 appear to be gone.
The biggest challenge for Lyons may prove to be a deep Pirate bullpen.
Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, Richard Rodriguez, and Kyle Crick are locked into the bullpen as Clint Hurdle‘s core four. Youngster Nick Burdi also seems like a safe bet to earn a spot. This is due to a combination of Burdi’s plus stuff and his Rule 5 Draft status requiring him to spend at least 60 days on the Pirates 25-man roster this season without the team having to return him to the Minnesota Twins.
There is also veteran lefty Francisco Liriano. Despite being signed as a minor league free agent, Liriano is expected to make the Opening Day bullpen. Liriano is familiar with Ray Searage and the Pirate organization, and, as Nick recently covered, is off to a strong start this spring. Barring a complete collapse by Liriano during the final two weeks of Spring Training, this likely leaves just one open bullpen spot.
Lyons is firmly in the competition for this last bullpen spot. However, he is not the lone candidate. Whoever does not win the final rotation spot will provide competition for Lyons. Odds are, Jordan Lyles will win the final rotation spot leaving Steven Brault and Nick Kingham on the outside looking in.
Brault, due to having minor league options remaining and his struggles this spring, seems like a safe bet to start at Triple-A. Kingham, however, is a former top prospect of the Pirates that is out of minor league options. This may entice the Pirates to put Kingham on the 25-man roster to start the season.
Kingham’s performance this spring may also work into his favor. In his first start he pitched two scoreless innings against the Marlins, and he tossed four scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Wednesday. While his middle start against the Phillies saw Kingham allow five runs in 3 innings of work, the good has outweighed the bad this spring. Unlike Kingham, Lyons can start the season at the Triple-A level, although his contract does have an opt out clause if he is still in the minor leagues on June 1st.
So far this spring Tyler Lyons has pitched well for the Pittsburgh Pirates. If he continues to pitch this way, it will be difficult for the Bucs to not take him north when the regular season begins. The battle for the final bullpen spot will be one to watch during the final two and a half weeks of Spring Training.