Pittsburgh Pirates: Potential Buy Low Bullpen Target

PEORIA, ARIZONA - MARCH 04: Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres delivers a pitch during a spring training game against the Kansas City Royals on March 04, 2020 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
PEORIA, ARIZONA - MARCH 04: Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres delivers a pitch during a spring training game against the Kansas City Royals on March 04, 2020 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

Former all-star reliever Kirby Yates would be a good buy low target for the Pittsburgh Pirates to add bullpen help.

Going into next season David Bednar and Chris Stratton are considered the only pitchers with guaranteed spots on the Pittsburgh Pirates MLB roster heading into next season. While they do have some unproven and young arms like Yerry De Los Santos, Nick Mears, and Blake Cederlind in the system, the Pirates should add some depth to the pen this off-season.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates could go a safer route, signing some veterans who have been solid over the past handful of seasons like Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Steve Cishek, or Yimi Garcia for instance, they could pursue at least one player that brings a bit more risk to the table. That player is relief pitcher Kirby Yates.

It wasn’t all that long ago Yates was arguably the best relief pitcher in all of baseball. Between 2018 and 2019, Yates had a phenomenal 1.67 ERA, 1.93 FIP, and .91 WHIP. He struck out a ton of batters, having a 38.7% strikeout rate (including a strikeout rate of 41.6% in 2019). Both walks and home runs were pretty much a non-issue. Yates dealt a free pass at a 6.1% rate while having an HR/9 of just 0.58.

Between the two seasons the right-hander had a healthy 45.2% ground ball rate. While he wasn’t the greatest when it came to inducing soft contact, he had an above-average exit velocity in both campaigns, as well as a good hard-hit rate in 2019. During 2019 the only stats he wasn’t in the top 95th or better percentile in were barrel rate (93rd), whiff rate (92nd), and walk rate (90th).

Among all relievers in MLB during these two campaigns Yates led them all in fWAR (5.2), ERA, FIP (being the only pitcher with a sub-2 ERA and FIP), was second in WHIP, 4th in strikeout rate, xFIP (2.45), and third in SIERA (2.14). The only reliever who could make an argument with Yates for the best reliever in baseball was Milwaukee Brewers left-hander Josh Hader.

However, Yates was injured most of the 2020 campaign, pitching just 4.1 innings and undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. He then signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, but was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery during March. So the last two seasons haven’t gone the right-hander’s way, to say the least.

Now yes, the two elbow surgeries are major concerns, but I’d still take the chance on Yates. For one, he was never that hard of a thrower. While he wasn’t a soft-tosser, he only averaged out around 92-94 MPH with his fastball. He mainly uses his command and strong splitter to get swings and misses. He is a bit older with 2022 being his age-35 campaign, but Yates was a late-bloomer. Yates reached the 50-inning mark in a single season in the major leagues during his age-30 campaign. He made his debut in 2014 when he was 27.

Yates will be looking to rebuild his value and not many teams with already established bullpen arms are going to be willing to let him take the reins in late-inning, high-leverage situations right out of the gate. That’s something the Pittsburgh Pirates can offer Yates. The veteran right-hander would likely take over 8th inning duties for the Bucs, right behind David Bednar in the 9th inning.

It probably wouldn’t cost anything more than $5 million to sign the right-hander. The Pirates may be able to sneak in a second-year option given that he may start the 2022 season on the IL and will need the first few weeks of the season to get back into form. If healthy, Yates and Bednar would make one of the most effective, yet underrated back of the bullpen duos.

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If the Pirates have the opportunity to sign Yates, they should take advantage of it. The right-hander was considered the best-of-the-best just a few years ago. Injuries have stepped in his way, but there would be very little risk to sign him. The very best result is that Yates comes back strong and becomes the elite reliever he was in 2018-2019. The very worst is that he misses a good portion of 2022.