Building the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day Bullpen


With Opening Day less than three weeks away for the Pittsburgh Pirates, let’s take a deep dive into what the team’s Opening Day bullpen could like

In 18 days the Pittsburgh Pirates will travel to St. Pete to battle the Tampa Bay Rays in a three-game series. When this series begins, the 2020 season will be underway for the Pirates. One of the biggest tasks facing manager Derek Shelton and his staff over the course of the next 18 days is deciding which eight pitchers will their bullpen consist of.

Prior to the start of Spring Training, Shelton named Keone Kela as his closer for the 2020 season. This came as no surprise as Kela is the most proven commodity in the Pirate bullpen, as well as being a pitcher with closing experience.

After Kela, however, the bullpen competition was wide open entering the spring. While certain pitchers had more of a leg up than others, no one was guaranteed a spot which was a change from recent years.

So far this spring, some things have been settled in the bullpen. Out-of-options righty Clay Holmes and fifth starter candidate Steven Brault have both experienced injury issues that will cause them to miss Opening Day. Prior to these injuries, both were likely to end up as members of the Opening Day bullpen. That is unless Brault would have won the final rotation spot, in which case likely fifth starter Derek Holland would have slid to the bullpen.

This was tough news for both pitchers, especially so for Holmes. After battling inconsistencies the past two seasons Holmes appeared to be putting it all together this spring with his power fastball and  turbo sinker. Regardless of what would have happened with the starting rotation, the injuries to Holmes and Brault created two spots in the bullpen.

Entering the spring, righty hurlers Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz were both in a good spot to crack the Opening Day bullpen. Crick, despite a woeful summer in 2019 before finishing the season on the injured list, was lights out for the Pirates in 2018 and still possesses terrific stuff. As for Feliz, he is out of minor league options and has flashed plus stuff the past two seasons but has lacked consistency. Both have pitched well this spring, and both should be members of the Opening Day bullpen.

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Another righty that entered the spring with high odds of making the ‘pen was Nick Burdi. Due to spending most of 2019 on the injured list Burdi still carried Rule 5 Draft status meaning he would have to spend at least the first month of the season on the MLB roster. In 3.2 innings of work this spring Burdi has allowed three hits, a solo home run, one walk, and he has struck out seven. Combine these results with a 100+ MPH fastball and a wipe out slider, and Burdi will not just make the Opening Day bullpen but likely find himself pitching in high leverage situations. With Kela likely to be moved at the trade deadline, Burdi could be the team’s closer by the end of the season.

Two pitchers that are set to benefit from the injuries to Holmes and Brault are righties Edgar Santana and Richard Rodriguez.

Between 2017 and 2018 Santana logged 84.1 innings for the Pirates in 88 outings, emerging as a key cog in the bullpen. In these 84.1 innings pitched Santana posted a 3.31 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 6.8% walk rate, and a 21.0% strikeout rate. Thanks in part to a 45.6% ground ball rate, he was also a bit of a fireman for the Pirates. However, following Tommy John Surgery, he missed all of 2019.

As for Rodriguez, he was terrific in 2018 posting a 2.47 ERA, 2.60 FIP and a 31.5% strikeout rate in 69.1 innings pitched. Rodriguez then regressed in 2019 posting a 3.72 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 22.1% strikeout rate, and watching his home run rate balloon from 0.65 HR/9 to 1.93 HR/9 in 65.1 innings of work.

As for a lefty in the Pirate bullpen, minor league free agent signing Robbie Erlin appears to be a safe bet. While Sam Howard is on the 40-man roster, he has struggled this spring and does not have the MLB pedigree Erlin does. As a reliever in his career Erlin owns a sub-4 ERA and FIP, and he has limited left-handed hitters to a .296 wOBA while striking them out at a 23.3% clip. He can also opt out of his contract if he is not on the Opening Day roster. Look for Erlin to be Shelton’s go to man when hitters such as Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, Kolten Wong, and Kyle Schwarber come to the plate in big situations.

One wild card could be righty Dovydas Neverauskas. The Lithuania native is out-of-options and has pitched well this spring. Neverauskas has allowed one run on four hits to go with one walk and six strikeouts in 5 innings pitched this spring. While he owns a 6.71 ERA and a 5.99 FIP in 61.2 innings pitched at the MLB level, Neverauskas has never lacked the stuff to be a quality reliever. If he continues to pitch well this spring, he could pitch his way on to the Opening Day roster.

While they are not ready for MLB action yet, a trio of Pirate relief pitching prospects have also turned heads this spring. Hard throwing righty Blake Cederlind has not allowed an earned run in 4.2 innings of work in Grapefruit League action. Featuring a power fastball that can hit triple digits, Cederlind has not allowed a hit, walked four, and struck out nine. Cederlind will need to work on his control at the Triple-A level, but he should be a member of the Pirate bullpen by the end of the season.

Joining Cederlind as key cogs in the Triple-A bullpen who could be future core members of the Pirate bullpen are righty Nick Mears and lefty Blake Weiman. While Mears results this spring have not been pretty (18.00 ERA in 4 innings pitched) he, like Cederlind, has flashed a power fastball and electric stuff. Weiman has allowed two runs on a home run, a walk, and two strikeouts in 3 innings of work. These are certainly three names Pirate fans should be monitoring at the Triple-A level this season.

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As of now, the Opening Day bullpen is likely to look like this:

Long relief: Chris Stratton
Middle relief: Edgar Santana, Richard Rodriguez
Lefty/long relief: Robbie Erlin
High leverage situations: Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, Michael Feliz
Closer: Keone Kela

This is a bullpen with a ton of potential that could be sneaky good. If Kela pitches how he always has, Crick and Rodriguez find their 2018 forms, Feliz finds consistency, and Burdi and Santana are healthy, this ‘pen could quietly become one of the best in the National League. If anyone slips up, the team appears to have good bullpen depth with youngsters such as Cederlind and Mears waiting in the wings. Holmes getting healthy could be a nice shot in the arm in late April/early May as well.