Pittsburgh Pirates right-handed relief pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. could be the likeliest non-tender candidate among their arbitration eligible players.
The popular baseball rumors site MLB Trade Rumors recently released their arbitration projections for the 2023 season. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a total of six players heading into arbitration, tied with the Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, and Colorado Rockies for the fewest. Those six include pitchers JT Brubaker, Robert Stephenson, Mitch Keller, Duane Underwood Jr., infielder Kevin Newman, and left fielder/designated hitter Miguel Andujar. Among those six, the only one who sticks out as an easy non-tender candidate is reliever Duane Underwood Jr.
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Underwood Jr. in the 2020-2021 off-season from the Chicago Cubs. In exchange for the former top prospect, the Pirates sent Shendrik Apostel to the Cubs. Underwood Jr. had an unimpressive yet unsurprising 2021 season, working to the tune of a 4.33 ERA, 4.27 FIP, and 1.43 WHIP in 72.2 innings. He only had one terrible outing on the year in early July, which inflated his ERA to the low-4s, though he served his purpose. He only appeared in 43 games and was primarily used as a multi-inning reliever.
But Underwood Jr. looked a lot better at the start of the 2022 season. Although he was injured for a decent chunk of the first half of the year, he entered the All-Star break with a 3.96 ERA but an impressive 2.27 FIP, 27.3% strikeout rate, and hadn’t allowed a home run in his first 25.1 innings of the year. He had a 50% ground ball rate, held opponents to an 85.6 MPH exit velocity, and had a 34.3% hard-hit rate. His .343 BAbip seemed destined to drop and help his performance. He was also throwing harder, with his fastball sitting at 96 MPH, a significant increase from 94.4 MPH the year prior.
Unfortunately, Underwood Jr.’s improvements wouldn’t last through the entire year. He was still great at limiting the long ball, allowing just one in his final 32.1 innings of the year, but he had a 4.73 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 1.52 WHIP. Underwood’s strikeout rate plummeted to just 18.1%, and his walk rate remained relatively the same at 9.4% (first half walk rate was 10%). There wasn’t much luck here either. Underwood Jr. had a 4.39 xFIP and 4.17 SIERA, which was almost identical to his 2021 underlying numbers (4.20 SIERA, 4.34 xFIP).
On top of that, he was giving up a lot more hard contact. Opponents hit Underwood for an 89.2 MPH exit velocity and 37.1% hard-hit rate, a 3.6 MPH increase, and a 2.8% jump from the first half of the year. He even lost a tick of velo, going from 96 MPH to 95 MPH on his four-seamer.
MLB Trade Rumors currently projects Underwood Jr. to make $3.044 million in arbitration this year. Although that’s not a massive salary, Underwood’s performance definitely doesn’t demand his salary. A low-mid-4 ERA reliever is not worth $3 million, and the Pirates should go the cheaper route, letting Underwood go in favor of a minor league reliever or a veteran on the market who could be had for less than a third of Underwood’s projected salary. Plus, the roster spot Underwood Jr. currently takes up is more valuable than what he can do on the mound.