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Addressing a Pirates’ need: Relief pitching

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Wild Card Round - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Some of you may have seen the title to this article and thought, “one single issue? The whole team’s a mess.” Fair enough. But I wanted to focus on a point that we know the Pirates will be seeking to address.

2020 was clearly a meant to be a bridge year in Pittsburgh; or, to be more precise, a bridge year to another bridge and, in all likelihood, another bridge year. That sentence is kind of clunky, but such is life when examining the Pirates. Going into 2021, there are some holes to be filled in the Pirates’ roster, but there are also many positions that are what you see is what you get, so to speak.

Barring any offseason trades, much of the positional landscape will look similar to this past season, with the exception of perhaps the bench and maybe a corner outfield position. The starting rotation will have many similarities, excluding Chris Archer, of course, but it got to a point where he wasn’t around all that often, anyway.

But with the impending departure of Keone Kela, the Pirates will need fill the role of closer. It doesn’t appear as though there are any in-house options to get the job done. Richard Rodriguez will likely remain slotted in the seventh inning and Kyle Crick will probably get the eighth. I don’t think management is sold on the idea that Rodriguez is a closer; as for Crick, his regression since acquiring him in 2018 is enough to be reluctant to put him in a closer’s role. We all expect Blake Cederlind to eventually take over as the team’s primary closer, but with only five appearances under his major league belt, he’s very likely not ready for that position.

The Pirates’ spending cap for a closer is likely in the neighborhood of four million dollars, but there’s a decent chance they’ll end up paying south of that. That number isn’t high enough to lure Kela back to the black and gold, so the front office will have to scour the market elsewhere.

The Pirates have had a tendency to go bargain bin shopping in the past, and this year likely won’t be much different. The Pirates like to look for $5 movies from 2009, all stuffed together in one giant sarcophagus at a Walmart Supercenter, destined for the end of the line.

But there are some options on this market that might allow the Pirates to bring in a higher profile name, including the two options below.

Sean Doolittle

The former Washington Nationals’ closer is a free agent after his long, team-friendly contract expired, which he initially signed with the Oakland Athletics. In his final full year, Doolittle commanded a salary of six million dollars, but that was also the year that triggered a regression in his abilities, or so it seems.

Prior to 2019, Doolittle’s potential price tag would be too cost prohibitive for the Pirates to entertain, but that shouldn’t be the case this year. After posting suboptimal numbers in 2019 (4.05 ERA, 4.25 FIP), Doolittle looked to right the ship heading into a tumultuous 2020. He wasn’t able to, as his fastball velocity dipped three miles per hours and in six appearances before injury, he got hit hard, posting a 5.87 ERA, 8.28 FIP, and 1.70 WHIP.

Those aren’t the numbers you want to see anchoring down the back of your bullpen, but Doolittle does have a decent track record prior to his recent tapering off. A career 3.07 ERA and 2.79 FIP tell us Doolittle certainly had it in him to be an effective major league reliever. Since the Pirates are quite budget conscious, they can’t afford to be very picky. As an organization with a recent history of enjoying trying their hand at reclamation projects, Doolittle seems like as good of a task as any. The Pirates should be able to nail the closer down on a one year, $3.5 million deal.

Trevor May

I’m quite a bit more partial to this option. The trouble is: May is still clearly good, after coming off a strong shortened season. That means his tag will be higher. He appeared in 24 games for the Minnesota Twins, posting a 3.86 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 2.74 xFIP, and 1.16 FIP. He wasn’t in the closer’s role in Minnesota, saving only two games last season, but he seems a good candidate to be able to transition into that role.

The righty also had a 14.66 K/9 last season, which was the highest of his career. He was worth half a win for the Twins over the course of last season. Perhaps the only obviously questionable number was his BABIP, which was .326. The silver lining — or perhaps spin — to that number, however, was that he may well have been unlucky and, despite that misfortune, still managed to put up strong numbers. If the Pirates want May, they’ll likely have to pay closer to $4 million and perhaps more. The front office should be willing to give him $4.5 million over one year.