The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen needs some reinforcements, as well as a restructuring to their overall relief corps
The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen was going to have some questions going into the season. It was one of the team's weakest areas in 2022, and few moves were made to improve the pen significantly. Now that the season is in full swing, it's clear the Buc bullpen needs some reinforcements and some overall changes.
The Pirate bullpen is doing okay, at least at a glance. They entered play on Sunday with a collective 3.59 ERA, 3.65 FIP, and 1.30 WHIP as a team. Then on Sunday afternoon, the Pirate bullpen allowed 4 more earned runs in 4 innings of work.
It's not the best bullpen in Pirate history, but it's not terrible, either. However, most of the heavy lifting has been done by two players. That's the Pirate 8th and 9th inning duo Colin Holderman and David Bednar.
Between Holderman and Bednar, the two have combined for 34 innings, a 1.59 ERA, 1.28 FIP, and 1.00 WHIP. The two have been lights out, and between them, there's only been one outing where they struggled. That's when Holderman allowed a 3-run home run to the LA Dodgers. However, outside of that one outing, the pair have been nothing but shutdown outing after shutdown outing.
But because of how immensely dominant these two have been, it makes the pen look better than it is. If you remove Holderman and Bednar's contributions, the Pirate bullpen has a 4.02 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP, and a 4.14 FIP. These numbers were made even worse after Sunday's performance. Again, these are far from terrible numbers, but without Bednar and Holderman, the rest of the bullpen's ERA and FIP shoot up by nearly half a run.
So what are some of the first things the Pirates can do? Well, the first thing is to start giving Dauri Moreta more higher-leverage and late-and-close opportunities. Moreta, who was acquired in the Kevin Newman swap, has been good this year. In 20.2 innings, the right-hander has a 2.14 ERA, 3.30 FIP, and 1.00 WHIP. Moreta has a quality 0.86 HR/9 rate, along with a superb 37.3% strikeout rate. Much of his success can be attributed to his increased slider usage. So far, his slider has been one of the best offerings in baseball.
So far, of Moreta's 19 total appearances, only four have come when the game is late and close. He's faced nearly as many batters with a four-run lead or deficit (43) than when the game was two or fewer runs (59). He has yet to give up a hit in late-and-close games or high-leverage situations.
Now that's not to say that Moreta is perfect. He has still walked 14.5% of the opponents he's faced while having a questionably low .167 batting average on balls in play. However, both Robert Stephenson and Duane Underwood Jr. have both proved a late-inning/higher leverage role isn't where they belong. Maybe it's time to consider giving Moreta the innings that Underwood Jr. would typically get.
Another pitcher who should be seeing more higher-leverage innings is Jose Hernandez. The Pirates picked Jose Hernandez in the Rule 5 Draft, and he's been a nice find so far this year. In 18 innings, Hernandez owns a 3.00 ERA, 2.72 FIP, and 1.06 WHIP. Control would be an issue that the left-hander would have to overcome, but so far, he's only walked 4.2% of opponents. He's also rocking a 27.8% strikeout rate.
Like Moreta, Hernandez hasn't been given many opportunities to show what he can do when the game is on the line. All but two of the batters he has faced have come in low to medium-leverage situations. Only four of the 17 total games he's appeared in have been in late and close situations. He's faced 69 batters with a lead/deficit of 4+ runs while only facing 34 batters in games with a deficit/lead of three or fewer runs.
Granted, Hernandez mostly worked as a long-reliever/starting pitcher throughout his minor league career, so I understand the Pirates slowly drip-feeding him higher-leverage and late-and-close game situations. However, I think it's time that the Pirates start to increase his workload in meaningful innings.
The third thing they need to do is promote Colin Selby (when he is healthy). Selby was recently placed on the injured list but was dealing before his IL placement. Selby had allowed just two earned runs, struck out 17 batters, and walked just two in the 11.1 innings leading up to the game he was pulled early from. Selby is currently the Pirates' highest-ranking relief pitching prospect, and at 25, there's little left for him to prove at Triple-A.
If not Selby, then the Pirates need to consider one of their other Triple-A relievers at least. Cody Bolton is on the 40-man roster and already made his debut. He's also done outstanding for Indy this year, owning a 1.88 ERA, 2.41 FIP, and 0.98 WHIP in 14.1 innings. Carmen Mlodzinski and J.C. Flowers would also be preferable options over some players currently on the major league roster.
Next, I think it's time the Pirates start weeding out the dead weight. Underwood Jr. and Stephenson have been done to death, but, for example, is Rob Zastryzny the guy the Pirates really should have as one of their two left-handed options out of the bullpen? The Pirates might not be able to find Billy Wagner 2.0, but I'd much rather see Tyler Samaneigo or Nick Dombkowski take those innings.
Zastryzny is a 31-year-old who has spent his entire career in the minor leagues with less than 50 innings in the big leagues. Sure, while neither Samaneigo nor Dombkowski is likely the team's next shutdown relievers, the point is these two have much more promise and potential than Zastryzny and a very low bar to surpass.
This is how I would structure the bullpen if I was given the option to do so: David Bednar and Colin Holderman would keep the same jobs. No question about that. The first order of business when Colin Selby is healthy is to get him in the big leagues while letting either Duane Underwood Jr. or Robert Stephenson take a major step back in terms of their role or outright letting them go. Once Selby returns, he will be slotted directly behind Holderman as the primary 7th-inning man. However, Jose Hernandez and Dauri Moreta will be the go-to 6th and 7th-inning duo until then. However, once Selby is up, they'll be forced back into a more middle-innings role, though they could also give the top relief prospect the day off here and there.
The second order of business would be to get some of the prospects up. The first ones I would look at getting to the big leagues are Nick Dombkowski or Tyler Samaniego to replace Rob Zastryzny. Zastryzny cannot be the Pirates' primary middle-relief left-hander, so getting a reliable replacement for him would be above getting a more reliable replacement for Underwood Jr. and Stephenson.
Speaking of Underwood Jr. and Stephenson, Cody Bolton would be my first option to replace either, whichever one is still on the roster after Selby's promotion. Although both J.C. Flowers and Carmen Mlodzinski would both be under consideration, Bolton has done much better at Triple-A so far this year than either of them. Plus, he's already on the 40-man roster, so the Pirates wouldn't have to DFA or release anyone to make room for him. However, letting go of both Underwood Jr. and Stephenson would make room on the 26-man and 40-man roster.
That would leave the bullpen as the following: Selby, Holderman, and Bednar would be the Pirates' go-to 7th, 8th, and 9th-inning options. The middle relief corps would consist of Moreta, Hernandez, Samaniego or Dombkowski, Bolton, and Yohan Ramirez. That would be a nine-man bullpen, and there definitely could be some leeway here. Instead of having Bolton, the Pirates could use that 26-man spot for an extra bench player.
However, this is how I think the Pirates could structure the best possible major league bullpen. The Pirates need to shake the pen up some way. Both Holderman and Bednar are carrying an overall unimpressive squad of relievers. That's not to say there's no potential, but it would be nice for a change of pace.