The Relievers Who Can Help the Pirates in 2021

The Pirates didn’t have a horrible bullpen in 2020. By most metrics they were middle of the pack, with their worst ratings putting them just outside of the worst ten bullpens. The overall results were middle of the pack, but there was some disappointment from the individual results in the pen, especially when considering how strong the Pirates have been in the late innings over the last decade with the likes of Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, and Felipe Vazquez.

Keone Kela was the guy expected to lead this group, but had a rough season. He missed the start of the year after being diagnosed with COVID-19, and then went down with a forearm injury after only three appearances. The Pirates were looking for Kela to lead the way in their first year in a long time without a dominant closer anchoring the bullpen. They didn’t get those results.

The rest of the group performed well enough to keep them middle of the pack, with a small group of pitchers standing out as 2020 performers and 2021 bullpen options. Today we’ll break down the 2020 seasons of the guys who I expect to be in Pittsburgh in 2021, which means no looks at guys like Dovydas Neverauskas. Here is the list:

Chris Stratton

Stratton pitched the most innings for the Pirates out of the bullpen this year. He had a 3.90 ERA and a 3.50 xFIP in 30 innings of work, while setting career high strikeout marks, and lowering his home run rate. The Pirates have Stratton under control for three more seasons, and he’s arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason. He’s a guy who could lock down a middle relief spot, pitch multiple innings, and maybe even give the Pirates a spot starter when needed, as he’s started in 41 games in the majors. Stratton is one of the few reliable-looking arms the Pirates have in relief, which is bad, since his reliability extends over one pandemic-shortened season.

Richard Rodriguez

Rodriguez has spent three years in the Pirates’ bullpen with mostly strong results. He continued that in 2020, with a 2.70 ERA and 2.83 xFIP over 23.1 innings. He also saw his strikeout rate go up to a career high 36.6%, while seeing a career-low walk rate of 5.4%. If those two numbers can hold up going forward, Rodriguez could emerge as a closer candidate for the Pirates. They have him under control for three more seasons, covering his age 31-33 years. At the least, they’ll look to him to help anchor the 2021 bullpen.

Geoff Hartlieb

Hartlieb is a hard thrower who has pitched 57.1 innings in the majors over the last two seasons, including 22.1 innings this year. He had a 3.63 ERA, but his 5.48 xFIP tells a different story. Hartlieb saw his strikeouts drop from 22.2% to 18.8%, while watching his walk rate soar from 10.5% to 18.8%. His home run rate dropped, and it’s hard to tell if that’s sustainable going forward. He did have a .254 BABIP that won’t be sustainable. Hartlieb will need to cut down on the walks and bring the strikeouts back up to help offset the additional hits that will be coming in the future. He’s got a chance to be a fixture in the Pirates’ bullpen, with 2021 being a good opportunity for him to win a long-term spot.

Sam Howard

Sam Howard was the best addition the Pirates made under interim-General Manager Kevan Graves, who claimed the lefty reliever in the few weeks between Neal Huntington and Ben Cherington’s tenures. He joined the Pirates with a 3.86 ERA and a 4.45 xFIP. He had some fortunate results with a .277 BABIP and an 81.2% strand rate. The positive is that his strikeout rate improved and his walk rate went down slightly. He gave up a high home run rate, which needs to improve going forward. The Pirates have very few lefty pitching options, so expect Howard to win a spot on the team next year, as the Pirates have five more years of control if he works out.

Kyle Crick

Crick only pitched 5.2 innings in 2020, with a 1.59 ERA and a 4.54 xFIP. His strikeout and walk numbers were almost identical to his 2019 totals. He missed most of the season with a right shoulder/lat strain. Heading into the season, he was one of the top relievers for the Pirates. He will still be a top reliever, guaranteed of a spot after he goes through arbitration this year. He’s got three years of control remaining, and the Pirates will be hoping for more results like he showed in 2018, which could put him on the list as a candidate for closer in the future.

The Prospects

I’ll break down some lower level prospects in tomorrow’s article. The 2020 season provided a unique opportunity for young players to make their MLB debuts, and as a result the Pirates had three promising relief prospects in the majors this year. JT Brubaker pitched mostly as a starter, and could be in line for a rotation spot in 2021. If not, he could get a shot in the majors as a reliever, with his average 94 MPH fastball and his hard slider giving him a great combo for the late innings, along with the frame and ability to pitch multiple innings. Blake Cederlind pitched four innings, and is an extremely hard thrower who hits triple digits routinely and averaged 98.3 MPH on his fastball this year. He could be another closer candidate, especially if his slider takes a step forward as an out pitch. Nick Mears probably wouldn’t have been in the majors this year during a normal season, but could help the team in 2021. He’s another hard thrower, averaging 96, while adding an above-average curveball that gets plenty of swing and miss. Cody Ponce got time in the rotation and bullpen, but profiles as a reliever going forward, again with a hard fastball and an ability to generate strikeouts. Between these players, the future of the Pirates’ bullpen is looking up.

The Rest

The Pirates churned through 26 players in relief during the 2020 season, with many of the players unlikely to play a role on future teams. I was a bit surprised they exposed Nick Tropeano to waivers, after watching him put up a 1.15 ERA and a 3.94 XFIP in 15.2 innings. The 2020 bullpen I see right now includes Crick, Rodriguez, Stratton, and Howard for sure, with Hartlieb, Brubaker, Ponce, and Cederlind all having a chance for spots. There are certainly spots in the air, and I felt Tropeano could have given them another middle relief option.

That’s mostly what you’ve got with the remaining players. Clay Holmes is the biggest remaining wild card. He went down early this year with a forearm strain, following his lone appearance where he threw 1.1 shutout innings. Holmes is another hard thrower with strikeout potential, and the ability to go multiple innings. He’d be a good candidate to fit in the back of the bullpen and try to work into a bigger role down the line, assuming he can stay healthy.

Tomorrow we’ll break down some of the prospects who could join these guys in future seasons.