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What role will Kuhl fill in 2020?

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Just about any way you slice it, the Pirates’ bullpen was a disaster in 2019. At least two dozen hurlers took the ball in relief at one time or another last season, and not many of them enjoyed success. Add to that a couple of fights and suspensions – and the horrible legal woes of erstwhile closer Felipe Vasquez -- and the whole thing was a mess.

Nearly a dozen pitchers wound up with ERAs at 7.00 or above – which has to be some kind of a record. Tyler Lyons led the parade with an 11.25 mark in three appearances. Among those with 10 or more appearances, Dovydas Neverauskas checked in at 10.61, Nick Burdi was at 9.35 before undergoing season-ending surgery, Montana DuRapau finished at 9.35 in 14 tries and Nick Kingham compiled a 9.00 mark before his release,.

It wasn’t just the numbers that were ugly. For whatever reason, I could barely watch when several Pirates pitchers, including Neverauskas, made the walk from the bullpen to the mound. Francisco Liriano, the ultimate nibbler, started out well but tailed off to finish with a 4.53 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP in 70 innings over 69 appearances. Richard Rodriguez yielded 14 home runs in 65 1/3 innings, and for a while there it seemed like he was serving up a gopher ball every time he took the mound.

It got to the point where Michael Feliz looked good in comparison to those two or any of the other two dozen arms that answered the call.

I had high hopes for Kyle Crick, who earned my trust and the trust of Clint Hurdle during a rock-solid 2018 season. But Crick, at one time a highly regarded prospect in the Giants organization, could not be relied upon in 2019, as he allowed 10 home runs in 49 innings and finished with a 4.96 ERA to go with a 3-7 record. His season ended in most ignominious fashion, as he underwent surgery to repair a tendon in his right index finger that was damaged in a fight with the aforementioned Vasquez. That was Crick’s second dustup of the season; earlier he and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas got into an altercation that ultimately saw Rojas get suspended.

The Pirates have many questions to answer, and perhaps the bullpen isn’t at the top of that list. The problem with bullpens is that relievers seem so unpredictable from year to year. Rodriguez looked like a major asset, based on his 2018 season, heading into 2019, and the same went for Crick. But neither came close to filling the role that the Pirates had earmarked for them. Add to that Keone Kela’s lengthy stint on the injured list with shoulder problems, and ultimately Vasquez’s arrest on criminal charges, and the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen was a nightmare of epic proportions.

So, who do you count on for 2020? Can you count on any of the holdovers? Call me insane, but I don’t want to give up on several of the arms who let me down in 2019, namely Crick, Rodriguez and Kela. For whatever reason, I’ve also always had a soft spot for Clay Holmes and I’m convinced that if the right pitching coaches arrive, they can unlock his potential. Of course, I thought the same thing about Kingham.

One wild card that enters the picture when pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton in less than three months will be Chad Kuhl. The 27-year-old right-hander made his major league debut in 2016, going 5-4 with a 4.20 ERA in 14 starts that covered 70 2/3 innings. He made 31 starts and went 8-11 with a 4.35 ERA in 157 1/3 innings in 2017. Kuhl’s progress was derailed in 2018, when elbow issues knocked him out of commission in late June after 16 starts that produced numbers similar to his previous season. He finished with a 5-5 record and a 4.55 ERA, and after a conservative approach to treating his right elbow issues failed to yield positive results, he underwent Tommy John surgery in late September that year.

Kuhl is expected to be ready to go by spring training, but where will he fit in? It’s way too early to tell what the Pirates’ rotation will look like, but if no major moves are made – and that’s a huge if – we could see Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer and Steven Brault break camp as the five starters. Many Pirates fans likely hope that’s not the case, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, and that would leave Kuhl without a spot. Is his future in the bullpen? He certainly has the big arm, assuming that it’s the same one he had before his surgery, and perhaps limiting him to an inning or two out of the bullpen – with an eye toward closing one day – would be the better way to go. His control certainly is an issue; his walks-per-nine innings number was a little over 4 during his last full season as a starter, and that won’t cut it in a high-leverage bullpen role. But I’d rather see him in a bullpen role – at least at the start of the season – than to break camp as a starter. For one thing, it would give him a chance to transition back to competitive pitching after sitting out a year. It would also give the club the opportunity to see if he is indeed cut out for a spot in the bullpen. And if one of the starters – read Stephen Brault – falters, you could always stretch Kuhl out and return him to the rotation.