The Pittsburgh Pirates have two very talented arms in the back of Double-A Altoona’s bullpen in Tyler Samaniego and Tahnaj Thomas.
Relief pitching prospects don’t get the same respect as typical starting pitching prospects. Most of the best relievers were starting pitchers in the minor leagues but were transferred to the bullpen because of a lack of a third pitch, durability, or lack of good command. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good relief prospects.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have two very underrated relief prospects at Double-A, the Altoona Curve. That’s Tahnaj Thomas and Tyler Samaniego. The two have been a very dynamic duo for the Curve this season. They’ve been flat-out dominant, with one setting up the save for the other. Now, they’re pushing for a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis and could be key members of the Pirates’ bullpen next season.
This is Thomas’s fourth year as a member of the Pirate organization. Thomas was acquired in the 2018-2019 off-season as a raw talent with a lot of velocity but mediocre command at best. While the start of his professional career was as a starting pitcher, starting 47 of the first 57 games of his pro career. After heavily struggling at High-A Greensboro last season, Thomas was moved to the bullpen when he was promoted to Double-A Altoona.
It took a little bit for Thomas to get used to a full-time relief role. He had a 5.65 ERA and 5.99 FIP, surrendering nearly as many walks as batters he struck out, having an 11:10 K:BB ratio. Plus, he had a 1.26 HR/9 rate, another number that was below average. This was through his first 14.1 innings.
But after that, Thomas fully embraced the role and has become a dominant set-up man for Altoona. The outset of June has seen him pitch 26 more innings, posting a 2.08 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 2.14 FIP. Thomas has a K% just above 30% at 30.5% and a walk rate of 5.7%. That’s two significant upgrades from his first two months of 2022. His K:BB ratio is now 5.33. He’s only allowed a single home run.
Thomas has always had a big fastball, one that averages out in the upper-90s and can hit triple digits. He also has a solid slider, but the two biggest issues for Thomas were his lack of command and an absence of a reliable third offering. But now that he’s in a bullpen role, many of those problems are solved. He’s shown better command, and a two-pitch offering works better in short outings than attempting to go four, five, six, or more innings.
The Pirate 2021 draft was a massive milestone in the rebuild. It added a ton of talent like Henry Davis, Bubba Chandler, Anthony Solometo, Owen Kellington, Lonnie White Jr., and Braylon Bishop. Most of those names were early-round selections, coming in the first five rounds, except for Bishop, who was a projected top 100 pick who fell to the 14th round because of his college commitment. One round later, after the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Bishop, they selected Tyler Samaniego out of the University of South Alabama.
The southpaw reliever signed for just $75,000 when the typical slot value around this portion of the draft was $100-125,000. Samaniego is a reliever through and through. He’s a two-pitch pitcher having a mid-to-high-90s fastball and wipeout slider. He doesn’t throw a change-up and didn’t start a single game at college.
Samaniego opened the season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, where he had a 0.53 ERA, 2.94 FIP, and 0.82 WHIP in 17 innings. He struck out 35.3% of batters faced and didn’t allow a home run because he had a ground ball rate approaching 75% (74.1%, to be exact). The only issue was the walks, which he surrendered to 16.2% of the batters he faced.
After getting the bump to Altoona, Samaniego cut his walk rate down by over half, posting a 6.7% walk rate. While his strikeout rate has also nose-dived to just 22.5%, he has remained highly effective. His ground ball rate is still an elite 53.3%, and he has an ERA of 2.63 and a FIP of 0.75. He’s given up seven earned runs, but five came in one outing. On the season, outside of one game where he gave up five earned runs in less than one inning of work, he has a 0.66 ERA and 1.72 FIP in 39.1 innings.
Since June 1st, Thomas and Samaniego have combined for 49 innings of work, producing a 2.39 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 2.71 FIP. They’ve struck out a combined 26.7% of batters faced while carrying a 6.3% walk rate. Their K:BB ratio results in a 4.25 mark. Even better is their home run rate. They’ve both given up just one homer, leading to a 0.38 HR/9.
Thomas and Samaniego make a very good 1-2 punch in Altoona’s bullpen. They have major league stuff and could be two setup men for the Pittsburgh Pirates at some point in 2023. A mix of these two, along with Colin Holderman, Yerry De Los Santos (if healthy), Wil Crowe, and David Bednar, could create a solid bullpen mix in 2023.