The Pittsburgh Pirates should be able to find their next best relief pitcher from within the system, but who will end up taking that title?
There have been many shutdown relief pitchers throughout the Pittsburgh Pirates history. The Pirates have emphasized relief pitching throughout their history, from Roy Face to Mark Melancon and now David Bednar. The bullpen has also become much more prominent in baseball today. Last year, relievers threw 18,212.2 innings, the second most of all time.
While this isn’t to say the Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of talented arms who could make up a very quality rotation, the Pirates will need to build a bullpen. They already have one high-end arm in David Bednar, but who will be their next best relief pitcher?
They’ll likely find their next big name for the pen from within the system. The one player that many point to is Michael Burrows. A spin-rate darling, Burrows has only made one appearance out of the bullpen. But since he only has two plus offerings, that being a four-seam fastball and curveball, many see him at some point making the transition to the pen.
Many also see him as one of the Pirates’ higher-end pitching prospects. FanGraphs boosted his rating while Baseball Prospectus has always been high on the right-hander. The difference between him moving to the bullpen and staying in the rotation is making his change-up a 45-grade pitch to a 50-grade pitch. His floor might be a reliever, but if he can even approach his ceiling, he may end up being a quality starting pitcher.
So what other prospect from the system may end up being the next best reliever? The next guy I want to point out is Santiago Florez. Florez is a two-pitch pitcher whose change-up is well below the average, unlike Burrows’. Though he is also a high-spin rate arm, his four-seam fastball averages out at 2400 RPM, and his curveball comes in at 2800 RPM.
He already comes in around 92-94 MPH at just 21-years-old, though a move to the pen may see a slight uptick, closer to 93-96 MPH. So far, he’s made just two appearances as a reliever. However, he did struggle once being promoted to High-A Greensboro last year. It was a small sample size in a hitter-friendly environment, but he’s yet to post quality numbers throughout an entire season as a starting pitcher.
Florez’s two offerings are truly elite pitches. He’s still a raw talent arm, but among any of the Pirates’ most notable prospects that could eventually end up in the pen, I think he would have a great chance to make it as a reliever. Two 60-grade offerings out of the pen would look great. His fastball may play up to a 65-70 grade level if he makes the transition.
Another right-hander who has the makings of a late-inning arm is Luis Ortiz. Ortiz had a great year at Bradenton, posting a 3.09 ERA, FIP, and 1.26 WHIP in 87.1 innings of work. Ortiz has a big fastball and already averages out in the mid-90’s. He also has a mid-80s slider that has late-breaking action. The issue is his change-up is firm and isn’t a pitch he can regularly rely on.
As described by FanGraphs, Ortiz has a frame and delivery that projects more as a reliever. Though they also state that he could be a “dynamite reliever.” The upper minor leagues will be the real test if he can remain as a starter or must move to the pen. Though you can’t deny that a mid-to-upper-90’s fastball and wipeout slider with average command has the makings of an excellent right-handed reliever.
One last name I want to highlight is Justin Meis. During last year’s draft, Meis was a 10th round pick by the Pirates. The right-hander comes in around 93-95 MPH. While his four-seamer is a solid offering, the real attraction is his slurve. It only comes in approximately 80-82 MPH, but he gets a ton of swings and misses on it. He has, arguably, one of the most underrated offerings in the system.
I also want to highlight some relief pitching prospects from the system. In the third round, the Pirates added right-hander Jack Hartman in the 2020 draft. Like most young relief prospects, he is a fastball/slider right-hander with some control issues. However, he had to undergo Tommy John surgery which caused him to miss 2021. Enmanuel Mejia had a phenomenal year with the Bradenton Marauders and Greensboro Grasshoppers. He also has some command struggles but big strikeout stuff. One of the few lefty relief prospects in the system is Tyler Samaniego. He throws in the mid-90’s with a good slider, and while he was a late-round selection, he has some real talent.
The Pirates will likely build their bullpen from within. They have more than enough pitchers to find at least five quality starting pitchers where they could make a good bullpen to help carry leads late into games. Among the names we talked about today, I think Luis Ortiz and Santiago Florez are their next big relief pitchers.
Ortiz has a big fastball and great slider. He also has solid command over his offerings. If he wants to remain as a starting pitcher, he must significantly improve his change-up. If Ortiz ends up as a starting pitcher, then Florez would be my next guess. He has two 60-grade offerings to start with. Unlike Ortiz, he’s yet to have a quality season as a starting pitcher, and I believe that we may end up seeing him as a late-inning arm at Altoona by mid-season.