The Future of the Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen is in Good Hands

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Blake Cederlind #62 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photo during the Pirates' photo day on February 19, 2020 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Blake Cederlind #62 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photo during the Pirates' photo day on February 19, 2020 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have always had great bullpens throughout their recent history. In the next year or so, they could have yet another fantastic pen.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a long history of having a good bullpen, especially in terms of late inning pitchers. They haven’t had a truly bad closer since before 2011 when Joel Hanarhan, and also haven’t had any really bad set-up men either since then.

The team looks like they’ll continue that trend in the future as they have set themselves up for long term success in the bullpen. For one, they have two very interesting prospects in Blake Cederlind and Nick Mears. Of the two, Mears currently ranks higher than Cederlind, being the team’s 13th best prospect per FanGraphs.

Originally an undrafted free agent signing, Mears showed off what he can do last season. Through 46.2 innings across three different levels of baseball, Mears posted an excellent 3.28 ERA, 2.95 FIP and 1.05 WHIP. The right hander also struck out 35.9% of all the batters he faced. This is largely impart due to his blazing fastball he can get into the triple digits, and a plus curveball. Eventually, Mears should be seen as a potential closer.

But just because Mears ranks higher than Cederlind doesn’t mean the latter isn’t a talented arm. Cederlind spent most of his time at Double-A last season, and pitched a total of 59.1 innings at three different levels. All told he had a 2.43 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP. Cederlind didn’t post great strikeout numbers with a 21.9% strikeout rate, but he did combat that with a solid 6% walk rate, and strong 0.3 HR/9 rate. Cederlind also had a sub-2 ERA and mid-3 FIP at High-A.

Cederlind and Mears might be two young prospects with a high ceiling, but they aren’t the only young arms the Pirates will be relying on in the future. One that really stands out should be 2019 prospect Geoff Hartlieb. Now, yes, Hartlieb did struggle in the Majors in 2019, but he has plenty of potential. He did very well before being called to the Majors last season.

Through 39.2 innings at Triple-A, Hartlieb had a 2.50 ERA, 2.24 FIP and 1.16 WHIP. Not only did he strike out over 30% of the batters he faced, having a 30.7% strikeout rate, but he also allowed no home runs. This is a very impressive feat considering how hitter friendly the minor leagues were last year.

Hartlieb throws a fastball, sinker, slider and change-up. Of the three, his sinker is probably the best. Not only can he throw it into the 95-96 MPH range, but he has some really nice movement on it as well. He also has plenty of movement on his slider, and his change-up is one of the most truly underrated pitches in baseball.

Overall, it has the 30th most vertical movement in baseball, while still sitting above average in horizontal movement. He’s also one of seven pitchers in baseball who could get their change-ups in the 90+ MPH range. It has more movement than Jacob deGrom’s change, and he can throw it harder than Gerrit Cole. His fastball also shouldn’t be slept on either. It has the potential to be his best pitch. Hartlieb can throw the pitch upwards of 97 MPH with a spin rate in the top 88th percentile.

Clay Holmes is another name that should be considered a future asset to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like Hartlieb, Holmes did struggle given full playing time last season. But many of his struggles can be traced back to one thing: his fastball. Opponents slugged over .500, had a batting average above .300, walked more than 35% of the time, and swung and missed at it less than 20% of the time. Plus it has very little spin, sitting in the bottom 7th percentile of fastball spin rate. Not only can he throw his sinker harder, but he can throw it with more movement too. The right hander also has a slider, curveball and the occasional change-up. He can throw the three other pitches with plus movement as well. Despite his struggles last year at the majors, he still had a 60.3% groundball rate to go with a 23.3% strikeout rate, showing he is more than capable of being a productive major league arm.

Nick Burdi is another arm with some MLB experience with the Pittsburgh Pirates and a very high ceiling. But in order to reach that ceiling, he just needs to stay healthy.

Burdi can throw his fastball for 97 MPH to pair with a slider that he usually throws around 87 to 88 MPH. Both pitches have 60+ grades per Fangraphs. But the former Tommy John victim underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery that kept him out most of last season adds yet another large injury to his arm.

Out of the players with more than one year of MLB service, Michael Feliz has some of the most potential. Acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Cole trade, Feliz has yet to put it all together. He has at times flashed the potential to be extremely effective, but has also struggled mightily just as much. Last year has probably been Feliz’s best season of his career. In 56.1 innings, Feliz had a 3.99 ERA, 4.71 FIP and 1.26 WHIP. But he had great ERA estimators with a 3.79 SIERA and 3.38 DRA. That’s mostly because Feliz had a strong strikeout rate 30.5% and opponent exit velo in the top 83rd percentile at 86.6 MPH.

The biggest issue Feliz had in 2019 was the long ball. He allowed 11 home runs. But he was a bit unlucky seeing as he had an xSlugging of .379, which is in the top 70th percentile, to oppose his actual slugging percentage of .413. Feliz’s best pitch is his mid-90’s fastball, and he also throws a pretty solid slider to go with it. Occasionally, he’ll throw a change-up, although it is the least used of his three pitches.

The Pittsburgh Pirates also have Kyle Crick, who had an outstanding 2018, but struggled in 2019. In 2018, Crick had a 2.39 ERA, 3.14 FIP and 1.12 WHIP in 60.1 innings of work. He also had a 25.5% strikeout rate and impressive 0.4 HR/9. But last year, Crick had a 4.96 ERA, 5.95 FIP and 1.55 WHIP in 49 innings. After posting a 0.4 HR/9 in 2018, that rose to 1.8 in 2019. He also walked a ton more batters as his walk rate went from 9% to 15.5%.

Now, yes, Crick was injured, and I’m sure the club house drama that he was involved in didn’t help, but Crick also got a bit unlucky. Crick is still in the top 94th percentile of exit velocity, expected batting average, hard hit rate, and in the top 85th percentile of expected slugging percentage. He also has an impressive slider that’s movement is 19.7 inches of horizontal break (112% above the average), and has plus movement on his fastball and sinker.

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Now these are the Pittsburgh Pirates’ best options currently with professional experience. But they added some even more potential backend bullpen arms in the most recent draft. Eventually, Jack Hartman and Nick Garcia could find themselves as one of the Pittsburgh Pirates many long term options for setting up, and closing out games for the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen.