With questions and concerns surrounding the bullpen as Opening Day arrives for the Pittsburgh Pirates, what does the ‘pen look like? What could be the good? The bad? The unknown? Let’s dive in and take a look!
Every Pittsburgh Pirates fan can remember the days of “The Hammer” Joel Hanrahan, “Grilled Cheese Time” with Jason Grilli or “Dancin with Melancon.” Oh, and how could anyone forget when Tony Watson took the ball and did his job.
Every one of those memories have one thing in common, winning baseball. Safe to say that winning team needs to have a consistent shut-down bullpen, so what does the 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen look like? What about the future of the bullpen?
Let’s take a look at what the current group has to offer, and a look in to the future of a group that was once the exciting end to a night of Pirate baseball on the North Side of town.
This year’s bullpen is going to most likely struggle, but it would be unfair to say that there isn’t potential within it. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a very exciting young electric arm in right-hander Nick Burdi who may be auditioning for next season’s closer role if Keone Kela leaves in free agency, or is traded and new manager Derek Shelton is going to keep the “closer” role in place instead of closing out games using statistics to match up arms against the opposing team’s lineup.
Burdi can easily touch 100 miles an hour with his fastball and he possesses a wipe out slider that makes him absolutely dominant when he’s healthy. After suffering a nerve injury last season in his throwing arm, Burdi looks to be healthy and with new throwing mechanics this season could be huge for him.
Obviously, I can not write this article without putting the best arm in the bullpen in the “good” side of things for this group. That guy would be Kela, who is currently not with the team after testing positive for COVID-19 when he returned to Pittsburgh to begin workouts. Although he should be with the team sooner rather than later, and his presence on the back end of things will be the most important part of this bullpen. Even after struggling last season through the first half of the season, Kela turned it around and was nearly perfect after the All-Star Break posting a 0.50 ERA over his 18 innings of work, reminding us all that he can be among the best relievers in baseball.
Michael Feliz is on the cusp of being a quality arm for this team and the future so I will put him in this category. Feliz has had his struggles with the team since coming over in the Gerrit Cole trade, but last season he showed signs of improvement and was one of the better arms towards the end of the season. This will be a true make-or-break season for Feliz.
Another guy that looks to improve on his good 2019 season is right-hander Chris Stratton. Acquired by Neal Huntington last season from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for cash considerations, Stratton has been given the opportunity to settle down in a long-relief role in Pittsburgh, something he hasn’t been able to do with his other teams. Instead of starting games, once in the organization Stratton settled down and pitched effectively out of the bullpen, posting a 3.66 ERA over 46.2 innings. If he can continue to pitch like he did last season, he should be one of the better arms in the bullpen.
Worth mentioning is the arrival of young right-handed flame throwing prospect Blake Cederlind, which will most likely happen at some point during the 2020 season. Cederlind ranks as the 28th best prospect in the Pirates system and has a 100 MPH elite fastball, he could very well be a mainstay in the bullpen of the future.
After a pretty good rookie season where he posted a 3.91 ERA over 25.1 innings, things have been all bad for Dovydas Neverauskas. The young right-hander has the “stuff” to be a very good relief pitcher (a near 100-MPH cutter) which is why it is so frustrating to watch him struggle so much, and I mean really struggle. Neverauskas has been so bad that it really surprises me he got a spot on the Opening Day roster. I really don’t see things ending well for him this season but I hope he proves me wrong.
Surprisingly, after such a great start to his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kyle Crick is making the “bad” side of things for me. After a strong first-half of the year, the second-half of last season saw Crick struggle just about every time he stepped on the mound. A drop in velocity and an increased fly ball rate has really hurt Crick and there may even be an injury that has yet to come out. Either way, I hope Crick can turn it around.
Richard Rodriguez put together a surprisingly elite season in 2018, where I was lobbying for him to get an All-Star appearance, and a decent 2019 season, but he could be a downward fall. Rodriguez has seen his walks per 9 inflate to 3.17, and his HR/9 jump from 0.65 to a 1.93, this is seriously hurting Rodriguez and may be the end of his time in Pittsburgh if he struggles this season. In the exhibition game against the Indians on Saturday he surrendered 4 earned runs and walked a batter in his only inning of work, could this be a sign of things to come?
Lastly, this bullpen will consist of a few guys who we really don’t have much of an idea what type of impact they will make. The Opening Day roster has been set and among the names rounding out the bullpen include non-roster invitees Robbie Erlin and Nik Turley, who haven’t really had a chance to show what they can do in a MLB bullpen. Clay Holmes, who has struggled in parts of two seasons with the team. Prospect JT Brubaker, who has quietly pitched very well in the system and if not for an injury would have seen a lot of time with the team last season. We should also see Geoff Hartlieb at some point, and he still has potential to join this ‘pen for years to come.