Once one of the most dominant pens in baseball has fallen from grace in just a few seasons. So far, how has the pen fared and what could it’s future be in 2020?
Back in 2018, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a terrific bullpen. It was probably their biggest strength as the ‘pen was usually shut down when they were in the game and it played a large role in the team recording their fourth winning record in six seasons. Plus, with most of the pieces they had in it under control for the next handful of seasons, it didn’t look like they would have to worry about it for the next few seasons.
Fast forward to this strange year that is 2020, and the bullpen is probably the biggest weakness for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Injuries, factors out of the Pirates control, and players who were key cogs to that 2018 pen like Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez are now making that season look more like a fluke, are making this bullpen struggle to get by.
Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates have closer locked down. No question, Nick Burdi has been outstanding, and absolutely shut down so far. While it is just 2 innings, Burdi has struck out four of the six batters he’s faced this season. While he has been the fill-in closer for Keone Kela, he’s probably the long term answer for the 9th inning for now.
Geoff Hartlieb has also looked solid in the very few innings he has pitch as well. Despite giving up five hits in 3 innings, his sinker and slider are showing some really impressive movement, and he could eventually be one of the Pirates’ lock down set up options.
JT Brubaker looked amazing as well in his debut game against the Cardinals. In just 2 innings of work, he allowed three hits, but struck out four batters and didn’t allow a free pass. All while showing some really good stuff. However, given that Brubaker was originally a starting pitching prospect, it’s still up for debate whether he belongs in the bullpen or in the rotation.
Both Michael Feliz and Chris Stratton have had a bit of trouble with their control, but both are still showing they have the potential to be solid out of the pen. Stratton has seen his already impressive fastball spin rate increase even more from 2498 RPM in 2019 to 2523 RPM so far in 2020. Plus he’s also put more horizontal break on his slider. Feliz, on the other hand, looked really good in his first outing of 2020, striking out one Cardinal in one inning and allowing no base runner, but gave up two hits, a walk, and 4 earned runs against the Brewers.
However, the rest of the bullpen has struggled. Lefties Miguel Del Pozo, and Nik Turley have combined for just 3.1 innings of work, but have surrendered seven walks, and 6 earned runs. Their other lefty in the pen, Robbie Erlin, has been solid striking out five and allowing just one batter to reach base via free pass so far in his 3.1 innings, but has given up five hits.
It remains to be seen which Richard Rodriguez we will see in 2020. His first game of the year did not give many fans confidence as he gave up a two run home run to Paul DeJong which ended up being the game winning runs. But since then, he hasn’t allowed a base runner, and has struck out three. He’s also showing a lot more movement with his slider than in previous years, but he still should be given a short leash as not only did he struggle mightily in 2019, but also has a 98.7 MPH opponent exit velocity so far this year.
So far, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had two relief pitchers go in the injured list, that being right-handers Kyle Crick and Clay Holmes. Something was clearly wrong with Crick this year as his fastball was struggling to get his fastball above 90 MPH. This was a guy who consistently sat in the 95-96 MPH range in 2018 and 2019. If he can’t regain his velocity after he returns, Crick’s days with the Bucs might be numbered. But Holmes is a big let down. He was seen as one of the potential long term building blocks for the bullpen. In the one game he did play, he allowed just two hits in 1.1 innings and struck out a batter while showing some really impressive stuff. Plus considering he was pitching to his strengths, using his curveball, and not once throwing his hard-to-control fastball, it seemed he was turning a corner.
Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen is bare bones, and many of the players in the pen are unreliable in close games. Should they bring up guys like Nick Mears and Blake Cederlind yet? While that would be awesome to see the future of the bullpen with Mears and Cederlind setting up Burdi, there’s no point in rushing them in a season like this.
We’ll see the bullpen rise once again with Burdi, Mears, Cederlind, Hartlieb leading the charge, and other potential names like Blake Weiman, and John O’Reilly being potential factors into the creation of the Shark Tank 2.0.
But the Pirates are in no position to compete. Right now should be a time to test things out and see what works, and what doesn’t. Experiment a little. Give guys who usually wouldn’t have a shot a chance to see what they can do. Before they turn to some of their top prospects, I would like to see them give some of the more lesser known names in their system like Cody Ponce or Braeden Ogle, both of whom are on the taxi squad, a chance. After all, they are fringe guys who may or may not play a role in the future of the Pirates and this might be the best time to try them out.