The Pittsburgh Pirates have always prided themselves in having a strong force in the back end of the bullpen. When Keone Kela’s tenure in Pittsburgh ends, who will take over the closer role for the Bucs?
If the 2020 season happens, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to open the year with Keone Kela as the team’s closer. Kela missed most of 2019 with an injury, but once he was reactivated from the injured list, he was outstanding.
In his final 18 innings of the season, the hard throwing right hander allowed just 1 earned run on eight hits. None of the eight hits left the ballpark, and only four went for extra bases. He also walked just seven batters and struck out 22. But the problem is Kela at this point is a one year rental. The 27-year-old will hit the open market after the year, and while the Pittsburgh Pirates could re-sign the late inning arm, it’s likely that he will sign with a team that is looking to compete, even if the Pirates can out-match their offer.
So if/when Kela leaves in free agency, who are the best options to take over as the next closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates? The Pirates have always prided themselves in a strong back end of the bullpen, as they’ve had an an All-Star caliber arm closing out games since the early 2010s.
The Pirates have plenty of internal options to turn to. The first of which is Nick Burdi. Burdi showed plenty of potential last season when he struck out 17 of the 40 batters he faced while walking only three. However, something was clearly wrong with Burdi in his last game of 2019. On April 22 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Burdi gave up 5 earned runs on four hits, including a home run. Burdi’s season ended in a gruesome manner when he suffered a painful looking nerve injury on the mound. Eventually, he had to undergo surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
Burdi has a strong fastball that sits in the high-90s, and averages out at 97.3 MPH. He also carries a strong slider, which has 34.5 inches of vertical drop. The pitch has a 60 future grade per FanGraphs, which makes it very good. His fastball also has a grade in the 60s, sitting at 65. The only question will be how his arm will hold up. This isn’t the first time he has had to undergo a season ending surgery, as he underwent Tommy John surgery back in 2017.
Another young prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates could turn to is Blake Cederlind. Cederlind is a 23-year-old right hander who had an outstanding breakout 2019 season in the minors. Of his 59.1 innings pitched, 45 of them came at Double-A Altoona. He posted a very strong 1.77 ERA and 1.03 WHIP at Double-A, and gave up just one home run, but had overall solid but unimpressive peripherals. That included an 8.6% walk rate, but 22.7% strikeout rate. That’s good for a 14.1% K/BB rate and 2.63 K/BB ratio. In comparison, the MLB average K/BB ratio in 2019 was 2.7.
Cederlind still has good grades for his fastball with a 65 overall grade, and solid slider (50 grade). He can get his fastball into the 96-98 range, and can touch 100 MPH. If he can add a bit more bite to his slider, his strikeout numbers should go up. You probably want to see at least a strikeout per inning with a guy who has the kind of power Cederlind has.
A breakout candidate in Michael Feliz should not be counted out as well. Last year, Feliz had a 3.99 ERA, 4.71 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP in 56.1 innings of work. Those aren’t necessarily closer numbers, but a lot of his struggles came in the first half of 2019. From July onward, Feliz pitched in 35.1 innings, posting a 2.80 ERA and 2.59 FIP.
Feliz has a great pitch repertoire. Feliz’s fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he is in the top 62nd percentile of fastball spin. His slider, although it doesn’t have much drop, has plenty of horizontal movement with 7.9 inches of break. He also throws a change up on occasion, but it’s his least used pitch.
On his pitches, he can get plenty of swings and misses. Feliz has a 31.7% put away rate with his slider, and 48.6% whiff rate on the pitch as well. He also got 40 strikeouts on his fastball. Overall, he struck out 73 batters. His potential is highlighted even more in his deserved run average of just 3.38. But the biggest issue Feliz has is keeping the ball on the ground. Feliz gave up 11 home runs last season. 25% of all the hits he gave up were long balls. Feliz doesn’t give up much hard contact, sitting in the top 83rd percentile of hard hit rate and clocking in with an 86.6 MPH exit velocity, similar to that of former Pirates starter Charlie Morton in 2019 and Rangers’ ace Mike Minor. But he had a 34.3% ground ball rate and 17.7 opponent launch angle. In comparison, the MLB average ground ball rate is 43%. If he can get over this hurdle, Feliz could be the best pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen.
These are probably the three best internal options, but many other relief pitchers the Pirates have in the bullpen have the potential to force their way into this conversation. Both Clay Holmes, and Geoff Hartleib have the movement and velocity on their pitches that represent outstanding late inning relief pitchers. If Richard Rodriguez or Kyle Crick have bounce back seasons, they could also be in consideration for the spot.
The Pirates’ future closer might not be in the organization yet. The team acquired their last five closers through trade. In almost all of the trades, the pitcher who would eventually become their closer was not considered an elite arm at the time. The last home grown closer they’ve had is Matt Capps. I could absolutely see them getting a young arm with closer potential as part of a package in a trade involving one of their multiple trade pieces.