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Can the 2019 Pirates Bullpen Stand As Currently Constructed?

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MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, can the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen remain sturdy enough without any further additions?

We have heard repeatedly that the Pittsburgh Pirates would like to add to their 2019 bullpen before everything is said and done.

With the full caveat that a bullpen is never finished and that there is plenty of time between now and Spring Training for the club to add a relief arm, it’s fair to wonder — Can the team rely on their bullpen as currently constructed?

Withstanding Loss

The loss of Edgar Santana could be felt more deeply than many Pittsburgh Pirates fans realize. Santana was simply a jack of all trades that Clint Hurdle deployed liberally in nearly any situation:

Most telling here is that Hurdle trusted Santana with the score tied or the team slightly ahead for about one-third of his appearances. And why wouldn’t he, with the strides that Santana took in 2018?

Santana had a very noticeable drop in four-seam usage as July begann, and those pitches were replaced with a re-emphasis on his sinker to go along with his slider.From that point forward, Santana lowered his ERA from 3.93 on July 1st down to 2.71 before a bad outing in what would be his final game brought it back up to 3.26 at season’s end.

Oh, and that slider....

So how do the Pirates replace a pitcher with a verifiable, nasty out-pitch who also seemed to fully grasp how to play that out-pitch off of better fastball command?

Perhaps Nick Burdi could be that guy? Burdi does not exactly inspire confidence, having pitched just 11 innings prior to a late September call up. He struck out two batters in the 1.1 innings he logged, but gave up a home run and walked two. Of course, we can infer absolutely nothing from 1.1 innings, and perhaps the situation amounted to the Pirates’ simply wanting to get an early look at where Burdi is at in a low-stakes environment, but the point remains that he is a great unknown at this point.

His velocity is still there — his four-seam averaged 96.91 mph last season as per Brooks Baseball; his two-seamer/sinker clocked at 97.30 — and many raved about his slider before his surgery. If his slider maintains the bite it reportedly had pre-TJ, he could be an answer to replace Santana.

It might take some gymnastics for the Pittsburgh Pirates to keep Burdi, however. Having only been reinstated from the 60-day DL on September 1st of last year, Burdi has not yet accrued the necessary 60 days of service time that a rule 5 pick such as himself must compile before he can be optioned. It may take carrying an 8-man bullpen for the season’s first month and change before he can be sent down.

Pittsburgh already think highly enough of Burdi to have sent $500,000 in International Bonus Pool money to the Phillies for his rights.

The Swing Guy

To be completely fair, the bullpen’s current state could be judged on what type of contribution the club gets form Michael Feliz.

As I and others prepare Piratesguide 2019, I have been building out graphics for our player preview pages. When I came to Feliz’s, I was struck by just how down of a year Feliz had when compared against his previous two seasons:

Swing and miss was a mystery to Feliz for much of the season, and his elevated walk rate carried more ugliness as a result. His contact quality rates were less effective as well. At least a fair share of his ineffectiveness as the weather warmed will undoubtedly go to the shoulder inflammation which landed him on the DL last summer. If he can bounce back and regain the ability to fool hitters and stick on the 25-man, he could lengthen the bullpen considerably.

More Kela

Keone Kela was a fantastic grab by the Pittsburgh Pirates at the deadline last year, but fans didn’t get as much of a hard look at them as they would have liked, as Kela pitched in just 16 games/15.1 innings since acquired. Having been shut down after his September 3rd outing, Kela left a tantalizing appetizer on the club’s bullpen plate. He struck out 22 hitters over those 15.1 innings, and gave all a taste of what the back end of the Pirates’ pen could look like for the next three years.

It stands to reason that a full season of Kela in the bullpen would only strengthen the unit, provided that he is deployed properly. One of Hurdle’s biggest criticisms is that he does not manage a bullpen well. While I’ll stop short of saying that Hurdle should play pitch-type matchups throughout an entire 162-game MLB season (Kela’s relies on his nasty curve while Crick turns to the slider when either needs an out), I would expect him to use any data point he can find that tips off how best to use this duo.

If he can do that successfully, then getting to the later innings could be all Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Pirates need to worry about, provided Kela and Crick hold up. It would appear that they might just have the horses to do so.