The Pittsburgh Pirates need to find some ways to improve the bullpen before the start of the 2023 season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has not been good recently. Since the outset of August, they have a combined 5.34 ERA, 4.44 FIP, and 1.52 WHIP, which includes Chase De Jong’s disaster outing on Wednesday.
The starting pitchers, meanwhile, haven’t been terrible through the same stretch. Including Wilson’s recent dominant performance, they have a 4.24 ERA, 4.23 FIP, and 1.34 WHIP. Those aren’t too far off from the league average. The starting rotation is starting to take shape now, with Luis Ortiz, Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, and Johan Oviedo all getting regular reps. Not to mention that Mike Burrows and Quinn Priester are now both at Triple-A.
With the starting staff becoming better, the relievers have become worse. While building a bullpen can be tricky, the Pirates need to find some ways to improve it next year. So what steps can be taken to give the staff a better chance to win once the starter is taken out of the game?
Two of the biggest additions to the bullpen will be injured list activations. Yerry De Los Santos would likely have taken over the closer role when David Bednar went on the IL had De Los Santos suffered a season-ending shoulder strain just a few days before. De Los Santos showed a ton of promise in his first look against major league hitting, with his last outing significantly inflating his overall numbers. Another rookie who will return to the bullpen is Colin Holderman. Acquired in the one-for-one swap for Daniel Vogelbach, Holderman landed on the IL just a few days after Bednar got injured. Like De Los Santos, when Holderman was healthy, he looked like a quality bullpen arm.
The Pirates lost all three of Bednar, De Los Santos, and Holderman within one week, a trio that could have been closing out games for the rest of the year. That put a damper on things for most of August and part of September. Only Bednar has been able to recover from his injuries. While getting De Los Santos and Holderman back next season is enormous, the Pirates should do more.
Internally, they could promote Tahnaj Thomas and Tyler Samaniego. Thomas reinvented himself as a relief prospect this year, posting a phenomenal 1.98 ERA, 2.70 FIP, and 1.05 WHIP from June through the end of the year. Samaniego was a 15th round pick by the Bucs in 2021. Despite being a late-round pick, the southpaw had a 2.45 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and 0.80 WHIP on the season. Impressively, he only allowed two home runs in nearly 50 innings of work (47.2, to be exact).
The free agent market this off-season does not have very many good options for relievers. Though there are three relievers, who stand out among this year’s class. The first is Adam Ottavino, who has a 2.18 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and 1.0 WHIP this year for the New York Mets. But there’s also a fair amount of risk given that 2023 will be his age-37 campaign, and he had a 4.59 ERA, 3.86 FIP, and 1.48 WHIP in 2020-2021.
The next is Michael Fulmer. The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year has solely pitched out of the pen this year, posting a 3.10 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and 1.31 WHIP for the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins. However, he might use this season as a way to work his way back into a starting pitching role, the role he won his AL Rookie of the Year award in and made his one and only All-Star Game as. Last but certainly not least is Rafael Montero. Montero has seen time both as Houston’s set-up man and closer, recording 13 saves. All told, he has a 2.51 ERA, 2.64 FIP, and 1.04 WHIP.
The free agent market for left-handed relievers is even more barren. The Pittsburgh Pirates would likely be better off with Samaniego. The only left-handed reliever that will be a free agent this upcoming offseason that has not struggled is Andrew Chafin, who has posted a 2.91 ERA, 3.25 FIP, and 1.10 WHIP for the Tigers. The rest are high-risk arms like Brad Hand, who has some pretty ugly underlying numbers, and Taylor Rogers and Zack Britton, who are bounceback candidates, albeit older ones.
The trade market may have a few more answers than the free agent market does. Depending on where the Detroit Tigers see themselves, they might look to move all-star lefty Gregory Soto and former all-star Joe Jimenez. The Kansas City Royals may also field offers for Scott Barlow. The Washington Nationals’ Kyle Finnegan received some minor trade interest at this year’s trade deadline and will likely be available in off-season talks. Teams will definitely call the Colorado Rockies regarding the comeback story of the decade, Daniel Bard. But they have balked at trade offers for him at the deadline and extended him through 2024.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will get two key relievers back next season from the injured list and possibly see a few more rookie relievers make their debut. However, they should look to add at least one arm from outside the organization. Between the return of Holderman and De Los Santos, the arrival of at least one of Thomas and/or Samaniego, and one addition from the free agent or trade market, the bullpen could take a much-needed step forward after a rough year.