Pittsburgh Pirates: Bullpen Could Improve Drastically in 2023

Apr 24, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher David Bednar (51) delivers against the Chicago Cubs during the ninth inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher David Bednar (51) delivers against the Chicago Cubs during the ninth inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen could look something like this in the 2023 campaign, and in turn could improve drastically as the season progresses.

The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has had its moments this year, but there have also been a handful of struggles. Regardless, the Pirates still have talent for the relief corps. The team has consistently had good closers and set-up men for a handful of years now, which could continue into the future.

With multiple young and controllable relief pitchers in the organization, I want to take a look at what the Pirates’ bullpen could look like sometime in 2023. There is plenty of guys the Pittsburgh Pirates could put in, but this is what I think the most realistic best possible eight-man bullpen would look like.

David Bednar has the 9th inning for now. Even with his injury, he still is having a quality season, posting a 2.70 ERA, 2.50 FIP, and 1.07 WHIP. He’s struck out just over a third of the batters he has faced with a 33.5% strikeout rate with a quality 7.4% walk rate. Home runs haven’t been a massive issue with a 0.77 HR/9, but he has given up his fair share of hard-hit baseballs this year. Opponents have a 90.8 MPH exit velocity and a 46.4% hard-hit rate vs. the right-hander.

While Bednar has been a bit worrying before his injury, there’s nothing that suggests that he couldn’t continue to be a shutdown force in the 9th inning and other high-leverage situations. There was some trade talk, but talks never went that far, at least based on what the public knows.

Yerry De Los Santos would currently be the Pirates’ closer if he hadn’t suffered a shoulder strain that took out his 2022 campaign. De Los Santos tossed 25.2 innings in his rookie campaign, but his last outing before his injury inflated dramatically. He didn’t record a single out, gave up four earned runs, and walked three of the five batters he faced.

However, outside of that, De Los Santos had a 3.51 ERA, 3.67 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP. While he had pretty unassuming surface numbers, he had a 3.25 K:BB ratio, but more importantly, he held opponents to a 12.9% line drive rate and induced ground balls at a 53.9% rate. When De Los Santos returns in 2023, he’ll likely be the automatic 8th inning arm for the Bucs. After all, he recorded three saves, and 17 of his 26 total outings came in the 8th inning or later.

Top relief pitching prospect Tahnaj Thomas could be another 8th inning option for the Pirates. Thomas has a 2.67 ERA, 3.30 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP. But most of Thomas’s good work this year has been this summer. Since June 1st, Thomas has had a 1.65 ERA, 2.12 FIP, and 1.01 WHIP. His K% sits just a few ticks below 30% at 29.5%, while his walk rate is a minuscule 5.4% rate. He’s also given up just a single home run in 32.2 innings of work.

Bednar, De Los Santos, and Thomas are all right-handed options, but the Pirates do have a few left-handers that could see some high-leverage moments with regularity. One is Manny Banuelos. Don’t be fooled by Banuelos’ 4.91 ERA. He has struck out 28.6% of the batters he has faced since arriving to the Pirates while having a .49 HR/9 rate. He’s arguably been the best soft-contact pitcher in baseball since game-81, holding opponents to just an 82.3 MPH exit velocity. The only reason Banuelos’ ERA is so high is because he surrendered five earned runs in his first outing. Since then, he has had a 2.50 ERA, 2.29 FIP, and 1.06 WHIP.

The last lefty we’ll be looking at is Tyler Samaniego. In 45.2 innings between Greensboro and Altoona, Samaniego has a quality 2.56 ERA, 3.50 FIP, and 0.81 WHIP. He has a 26% K-rate and an 11.3% walk rate. Impressively, he’s allowed just two home runs all year. Although Samaneigo’s strikeout rate has taken a hit since he got promoted to Altoona, he’s cut his walk rate down from 16.3% to 8.3% while keeping a healthy 49.3% ground ball rate.

After Samaniego, we have Colin Holderman. Acquired in the one-for-one Daniel Vogelbach trade, Holderman was a top prospect for the Mets heading into this year. FanGraphs ranked him as the Mets’ 10th best prospect in a top-heavy system. Regardless, Holderman has shown some talent in his first look with the Pirates, displaying an upper-90s sinker along with a decent cutter and slider. He’s not getting very many swings-and-misses right now, but he’s held opponents to an exit velocity of just 87.3 MPH and struck out 21 batters in his 17.1 innings of work at Triple-A this year.

Next up is Wil Crowe. Since moving to the bullpen, Crowe has been very solid for the Pirates. Even with his most recent blow-up, he still has a 3.51 ERA, 3.89 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP. While his 21.8% K-rate and 9.6% walk rate are underwhelming, he’s held opponents to a .81 HR/9 rate. Crowe is in the top 88th percentile of exit velocity and the top 97th percentile of hard-hit rate. The only thing is Crowe isn’t suited for a 9th inning role. He’s given up five earned runs in the 11 innings he has pitched in the 9th or later. However, between innings seven and eight, he has a 3.63 ERA.

Rounding things out, we have Tyler Beede. Now on the surface, Beede doesn’t look like anything special. He has a 4.93 ERA, 4.75 FIP, and 1.45 WHIP. However, most of Beede’s struggles are because the Pirates are trying him out as a starter right now when he clearly excels in shorter outings. Beede entered August with a 3.12 ERA and 4.31 FIP. However, since the Pirates have moved him to the rotation, he’s given up 16 earned runs in 15 total innings. When Beede faces the order just once, he holds them to a 2.63 ERA, 3.82 FIP, and .289 wOBA. After the first time through the order, batters have scored 14 earned runs in eight innings with a wOBA well above .450 (.464) and OPS approaching 1.200 (1.109).

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I think this is the best eight-man bullpen the Pittsburgh Pirates could realistically put together for 2023. Everyone here could realistically pitch 50+ innings and have an ERA+ of 100 or greater. A 7th-8th-9th inning mix of Thomas, De Los Santos, and Bednar gives the Pirates a young but talented trio with plenty of depth behind them with Beede, Holderman, and Crowe, along with two left-handed relief options.