The Pirates seem to be headed for an interesting experiment with their bullpen this year. Ben Cherington collected a sizeable group of relievers, most of them either with options remaining or on minor league deals. He’s been pretty open about the plan, which is to shuttle relievers between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, and see what develops. But that may not be as easy as it sounds.
Here’s a breakdown of the team’s relievers, by roster status. (I’m still counting Sean Poppen as a reliever.) An * means the player is on the 60-day IL and ^ means he’s a Rule 5 pick.
ON 40-MAN ROSTER
Can be optioned
Can’t be optioned
NOT ON 40-MAN ROSTER
Can be optioned if added
Yerry De Los Santos
Can’t be optioned if added
A few days ago, I thought I had this figured out. I’m guessing the Pirates keep six starters in the majors, with Wil Crowe or Cody Ponce most likely serving as a long reliever/sixth starter in the event they go, at least sometimes, with a six-man rotation. I’m also guessing they’ll carry 13 pitchers, so that would mean seven relievers. Of course, with five off-days in the first four weeks of the season, maybe the sixth starter could wait until May, but at some point fairly early in the season they might be limited to seven relievers.
Obviously, there are guys who are very likely to make the team, whether they can be optioned or not. Richard Rodriguez can be, but he isn’t going anywhere unless he’s traded. I also doubt Kyle Crick will be optioned, either, if he’s healthy. Chris Stratton can’t be optioned and should be a lock to make the team. They also seem very likely to carry Michael Feliz, since they went to the trouble of signing him rather than non-tendering him. So that’s four.
Then there’s Luis Oviedo, a Rule 5 pick. The Pirates selected him knowing he hadn’t pitched above low class A, so it’d be pretty odd if they expected him to look major-league-ready this spring. And Chasen Shreve is a strong possibility, given the team’s lack of LH relievers.
So that’s six relievers, which leaves just one spot to rotate among all those others.
And it’s just getting more complicated. For instance, I thought Carson Fulmer probably had little chance of making the team. The Pirates tried to sneak him through waivers shortly after claiming him, then valued him enough to claim him back when Baltimore dragmired him. But he’s pitched well in his last two outings after giving up a couple runs in his first. Then there’s David Bednar. He’s been lights-out in his two games. I thought he’d almost certainly be slated for AAA, but if he keeps pitching nearly this well it’d be a bit of a travesty to cut him. And Shea Spitzbarth, a minor league Rule 5 pick of all things, has pitched well in his three outings. And there are the team’s top relief prospects, Blake Cederlind, Nick Mears and Braeden Ogle. And a returning Edgar Santana, who has a better (albeit limited) major league track record than anybody here except Rodriguez.
The more I think about it, the more it seems like the Pirates should be looking to trade pitchers like Rodriguez, Crick, Feliz and Stratton, if opportunities arise to get some sort of value in return. It’s great to have all these choices and it’s possible, well, likely that some of them won’t have good springs in the end. But Cherington’s plan only works if a lot of relievers get opportunities in the majors this season.