Pittsburgh Pirates: Looking at the Potential Future of the Bullpen

Jun 13, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher David Bednar (51) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth inning at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher David Bednar (51) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth inning at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty of young arms in the minors that could help carry leads to David Bednar late into games in the near future.

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates made the postseason the bullpen was a strength for the team. In the early to mid-2010s, they earned the nickname “the Shark Tank” because they were dominant. With Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, and many others giving the Pirates many quality innings. But the last few years, the pen hasn’t been anything to brag about.

Like many parts of the Pirate  roster, this should improve over the next handful of seasons. They have many prospects that could come up throughout the next one to three seasons and become integral parts of the Pirate bullpen.

David Bednar is the closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates over their long-term future. Last season the Mars, PA, native had a 2.23 ERA, 2.69 FIP, and 0.97 WHIP. The right-hander was a strikeout machine, getting 32.5% of batters faced down on strike three while having a quality 8% walk rate and 0.74 HR/9. Bednar even earned National League Rookie of the Year votes.

Bednar is a bit of a late bloomer as this was his age-26 season, but he was never given a shot to prove himself in the two seasons he played with the San Diego Padres. Bednar will have the 9th inning on lockdown for the foreseeable future for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But you need more than just one good reliever to have a successful bullpen. Luckily the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system could provide Bednar a supporting cast that can deliver him leads in late innings. This starts with some of the organization’s most recent draft picks.

Bednar isn’t the only Pennsylvania native that could become a key contributor long-term. The Pittsburgh Pirates used their 10th round pick on right-hander Justin Meis. Born in Bethel Park, Meis showed a wicked low-80’s breaking ball to pair with a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s. He also displayed a strong changeup, which led to him allowing just 4 earned runs with 27 K’s through his first 17.2 professional innings. Next year is Meis’s age-22 season, and has a chance to earn the closing role at High-A Greensboro.

Five rounds later, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected left-hander Tyler Samaniego. The Pirates haven’t had a quality lefty relief prospect since the likes of Tony Watson and Justin Wilson. Although Samaniego was a later-round pick, the southpaw showed off a mid-to-upper-90’s fastball and plus slider. He needs to refine his command, but he only walked 2 of the 28 total batters he faced in 2021. Given his age, Samaniego turns 23 at the end of January and might even start the year at Double-A.

You also can’t forget some of the arms that dominated the low minors. Enmanuel Mejia dominated batters at A-Ball before being promoted to High-A. Command issues aside, Mejia might just be the Pirates’ best relief prospect. A Pirates’ minor leaguer who dominated Rookie-Ball batters was Darvin Garcia. Garcia allowed just ten earned runs in 33 innings while striking out 44 with just three walks. Another A-Ball pitcher who did well was Nick Dombkowski. He was an undrafted free agent who showed some solid stuff with Bradenton.

The Bucs have a handful of top starting pitching prospects that could eventually transition to the bullpen. The most likely of them is Santiago Florez. Florez has two 60-grade offerings but has fringy command and no quality third offering. This may have been one of the reasons he struggled once he was promoted to High-A Greensboro.

Michael Burrows is another starting pitching prospect who could make a move to the pen. Like Florez, Burrows has two plus-plus offerings solid command but lacks a quality third pitch. He will throw a change-up from time to time, but it’s nothing more than a work in progress. So far, Burrows has yet to struggle as a starting pitcher. The upper minors will be a real test for him if he can develop a third pitch or needs to move to the pen.

Recently acquired right-hander Kyle Nicolas gives the Pirates another pitcher with two great offerings, his slider, and fastball, but a curveball and change-up that require significant improvement. Luis Oviedo is another young arm who could eventually become part of the long-term bullpen plans. He was a starting pitcher throughout the minors, and while he struggled in the majors last season, he jumped from Low-A to MLB because he was a Rule 5 pick from the Mets who traded him to the Pirates.

The Pittsburgh Pirates could also see the likes of Ricky DeVito and Austin Roberts, or someone from the current batch of starting rotation candidates like JT Brubaker, Max Kranick, or Wil Crowe serve as a swingman/long relief role. Both Brubaker and Roberts may serve more significant roles than long relief as both have stuff that would play even as a higher leverage reliever.

Some MLB-ready relievers may end up as long-term arms. Nick Mears was an un-drafted free agent who became one of the more noteworthy Pirate relief prospects. So far, he has struggled during his brief look in the majors. Blake Cederlind will be coming back from Tommy John surgery, and he showed up on some prospect maps after a quality 2019 campaign where he displayed a 100 MPH fastball. One last arm to mention is left-hander Blake Weiman. While Weiman may have struggled in 2021, he looked like a potential long-term bullpen arm for the Pirates based on what he did in the prior three seasons. He was mainly hurt by an abnormally high 23.9% HR/FB ratio last year.

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With the number of young arms coming up through the system, the Pirates should find a quality bullpen from within the organization. The team has plenty of relief-capable arms who could support David Bednar and help carry a lead to him in the late innings of ball games.