Pittsburgh Pirates: Future of Two Former Top Relief Prospects

Mar 1, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Blake Cederlind (49) pitches in the bottom of the fifth inning during spring training at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Blake Cederlind (49) pitches in the bottom of the fifth inning during spring training at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates will have to make a decision regarding these two young relief pitchers this offseason

The Pittsburgh Pirates have developed and acquired a handful of potential bullpen arms throughout this rebuild. Tahnaj Thomas’ transition to the bullpen has been smooth. They drafted Tyler Samaniego in the 2021 draft. At this year’s trade deadline, they acquired Colin Holderman. Manny Banuelos looks like he could be a potential long-term lefty. Of course, David Bednar joined the organization early in the rebuild, and Yerry De Los Santos made his debut this year. There are plenty of others like Tyler Beede, Wil Crowe, and Robert Stephenson, along with ones who could transition to the pen like Johan Oviedo and Luis Ortiz if they struggle as starting pitchers.

That’s a good amount of relievers who could be part of the Pirate bullpen for the long haul. A handful is rookies or still in the minor leagues. The only ones I mentioned who have appeared in more than three major league seasons have been David Bednar, Tyler Beede, and Manny Bañuelos. However, only Bednar and Beede have pitched more than 50 innings in a season twice. But with all the new talent in the system, some have gotten buried under the depth. The two names I want to focus on today were once considered the Pirates’ top relief prospects when the teak kicked off the rebuild.

The first is Blake Cederlind. Going into the 2020 season, FanGraphs ranked Cederlind as the team’s 28th best prospect. Cederlind was coming off a strong 2019 campaign that saw him toss 59.1 innings of ball, pitching to the tune of a 2.28 ERA, 3.39 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP. Although Cederlind’s 21.9% strikeout rate nor his 9.6% walk rate were anything to write home about, he allowed just two home runs while having a 48.4% ground ball rate.

Cederlind displayed a big sinker, one that could top out in the triple digits. He also showed off a solid cutter/slider that averaged out with around 90 MPH velocity but so-so command. Cederlind made his debut in 2020, pitching just four innings but striking out four and allowing a single walk. Overall, while his big stuff would have led you to believe he was a strikeout pitcher, he was more of a ground ball/weak contact arm.

Still, Cederlind was poised to take on a more prominent role in 2021. He was a potential set-up man going into the year, but a March Tommy John surgery would eliminate him from appearing in any games. He was set up to return this year but underwent a minor procedure to clear up loose bodies in his elbow in early August, pushing him back another six weeks. On the plus side, his UCL is fully repaired.

While Cederlind ranked as the Pittsburgh Pirates 28th best prospect on FanGraphs list, Nick Mears, the next name we’ll examine, ranked as the organization’s 13th best prospect. Mears was an undrafted free agent but quickly rose to prominence in the organization after showing off some powerful stuff in 2018 and 2019.

Mears really put his name on prospect maps after his phenomenal 2019 season. During that year, Mears rocketed through the Pirates’ minor leagues, starting the year with Low-A Greensboro and working his way up to Double-A Altoona. Mears pitched 46.2 innings between three levels, working to a 3.28 ERA, 3.12 FIP, and 1.08 WHIP. Mears racked up strikeouts like crazy, having a 35.9% strikeout rate, but also kept a 9.4% walk rate. Home runs weren’t his strong suit with a 0.96 HR/9, but below 1.00 is still good.

Mears had even better stuff than Cederlind. He consistently worked in the high-90s, topped out at 100, and threw his four-seamer with around 2400 RPM. He also throws a quality curveball. Mears is also projected to have better command than Cederlind. Mears also made his debut in 2020, pitching five innings while striking out seven, but also allowed seven walks and a home run.

Mears appeared in 30 contests in 2021, pitching a grand total of 23.1 innings. He struggled yet again, allowing 13 earned runs on five home runs, 13 walks, and just 23 strikeouts. While Mears still displayed the upper-tier velocity, his fastball had lost over 200 RPM from 2020 to 2021. On the plus side, his curveball remained relatively constant in terms of velo, movement, and spin, but an overall lack of command was Mears’ downfall.

Mears has been hurt most of 2022 but returned in late July. He’s currently stationed at Triple-A, allowing 11 earned runs in just 15.1 innings. His 28.2% strikeout rate is still great, but he’s seen his walk rate balloon to 16.9%, while his home run rate has skyrocketed to 1.17.

Mears is more than likely a potential DFA candidate. While Mears can throw hard with movement, he has little to no command. You also have to question as to whether his large drop in spin rate from 2020 to 2021 was a cause of the foreign substance crackdown. Pitchers like Mears are a dime-a-dozen: a hard thrower whose command gets in the way more often than not. With him soon to be 26 years old and struggling at Triple-A, Mears is more than likely playing his last games as part of the Pirate 40-man roster.

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Cederlind, on the other hand, is a bit different. If he’s back at full strength, it’s hard to designate a guy who has yet to prove they are not worth a look for assignment. But you also have to keep in mind that next year is his age-27 campaign, and he’s thrown four innings in the last three years and ten innings above Double-A. Cederlind deserves a shot, and he does have options remaining. Mears, along with depth arms like Jeremy Beasley, Yohan Ramirez, Peter Solomon, Eric Stout, and Cam Vieux, will likely be considered before Cederlind.