For years, the Pittsburgh Pirates prided themselves with a strong bullpen,. However, for 2021, there could be uncertainty in the 9th inning.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates essentially thrusted Richard Rodriguez into a closing role. Keone Kela pitched just 3 innings after missing most of the first half of 2020 recovering from COVID-19, and then missed essentially the second half of 2020 with a forearm injury. Being on the last year of his contract, Kela is now a free agent, and the Pirates don’t have a real incentive to bring him back, especially considering his injury concerns.
While Kela was out of commission, relief pitching prospect Nick Burdi opened the year as the closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The hard throwing righty looked excellent in the few innings he did pitch, but suffered a bicep tear which caused him to miss the rest of the season, and pitch a total of 2.1 innings. He could re-claim the role next year, but given his injury history, he’s not very relaible to hold the role.
In all fairness, opening the season with Rich Rod as the team’s 9th inning man wouldn’t be the worst possible scenario. After all, the right hander bounced back from an rough 2019 to post great results in 2020. In 23.1 innings, Rodriguez had a 2.70 ERA, 2.85 FIP and 0.86 WHIP, marking the 16th lowest WHIP in baseball.
Rodriguez also saw his strikeout rate all the way to 36.6% and his walk rate fall to 5.4%. After surrendering home runs at a near 2-per-9 pace in 2019, Rodriguez posted a 1.16 HR/9 in 2020. Rich Rod also had a strong 2.83 xFIP, 2.40 SIERA and 3.59 DRA. However, there is a bit of concern surrounding Rodriguez. Opponents averaged 91.7 MPH off the bat, which sat in the bottom 3rd percentile. Rodriguez’s hard hit rate of 51% was in the bottom 1% of pitchers in 2020 as well.
Though Rodriguez has the inside line for the closer role, it’s his job to lose. The Pittsburgh Pirates have two young arms that could potentially uproot him from the role. The first being Blake Cederlind. Cederlind currently ranks as the Pirates’ 31st best prospect, and second best relief pitching prospect. The hard throwing righty made his debut last year, and pitched 4 innings. Cederlind was outstanding in 2019, which is what put him on prospect maps.
Through 45.2 innings at Double-A, Cederlind had a 1.77 ERA, 3.07 FIP and 1.02 WHIP. Though he surrendered just one home run, Cederlind had a solid 6.3% walk rate and 22.7% strikeout rate. Though his strikeout and walk numbers weren’t the best, they were good enough. However, xFIP put him at 3.74. He saw a few innings at Triple-A, 7.2 to be exact and struggled, but it was a small sample size.
Cederlind has the fastest fastball among the Pirates’ top prospects as it averages 96-98 MPH, and tops out at 100. Though it doesn’t have much spin, FanGraphs still gives it a 65 grade, making it an elite-level pitch. He also throws a slider and change up, both of which have average future grades. With such a powerful fastball for a relief pitcher, he can get away with throwing fastballs as often as he does.
Nick Mears is also knocking on the door for the closer role. Ranked as the Bucs’ 14th best prospect, Mears was once an undrafted free agent the Pittsburgh Pirates signed and he could be their future closer. Mears rocketed through three levels of professional ball in 2019 pitching at Greenboro, Bradenton, and Altoona. He threw a total of 46.2 innings, posting a 3.28 ERA, 2.94 FIP and 1.05 WHIP. Mears struck out batters at an outstanding rate of 35.9%, and put up a manageable walk rate of 9.4%. Mears did give up five home runs, but two of them came in an 11 inning stint at Greenboro. However, at both High-A and Double-A, Mears had a sub-3 xFIP.
Mears, like Cederlind, is an extremely hard throwing pitcher. His fastball averages 93-98 MPH, and has been clocked at 100 MPH. However, Mears also puts a lot more spin on it with 2400 RPM. That would rank in the top 90-95th percentile in baseball last year. In terms of spin and velocity, you could compare Mears’ fastball to that of Dinelson Lamet and Chad Green. So it’s no wonder why FanGraphs gives it a 70 grade. His curveball is also considered an above average pitch. Though he only has 2450 RPM on his curve, it’s a nice change of speeds which explains his absurd strikeout rates.
On the roster, Geoff Hartlieb has closer potential. His sinker has some wicked movement, as well as his slider. Both pitches are on elite levels. However he’s yet to harness the power in his arm. Last year, the talented yet wild right hander had an 18.8% walk rate in 22.1 innings of work. Chris Stratton had a really good season as his ERA was inflated in the last game of the year he played, however he’s struggled in high leverage situations, and really worked well in a long-relief role last year.
Next year, we’ll see the return of Clay Holmes and Michael Feliz. Like Hartlieb, both Feliz and Holmes have really good stuff but have yet to put that on full display. Both right handers got injured in the first week of 2020, and both pitched less than five innings combined.
Alternatively, they could go with a closer by committee role. Your best relief pitcher should pitch when it matters the most. It makes sense, right? The Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot of young relief pitchers who are likely going to be part of their future core. Right now is the time to see what they have. By rotating the closer role to different pitchers, the Pirates are expanding their ability to see how different players play in different circumstances. This could help in the future to play match-ups, what inning what player performs the best in, and more information that could help the Pirates win.