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What does Holmes’ injury mean to bullpen?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Pirates’ bullpen picture got a little less crowded over the weekend with the news that right-hander Clay Holmes would be sidelined for at least a month with a fractured right foot.

Holmes, one of several right-handers seeking to earn a spot in the bullpen, took a ground ball off the bat of Nelson Cruz off his right foot in a Grapefruit League game Saturday against the Twins.

Several outlets, quoting Pirates manager Derek Shelton, reported Sunday that Holmes would be in a walking boot for four to six weeks. Even if Holmes’ recovery goes according to plan, he’ll need at least a few weeks of rehab at Triple-A Indianapolis before he’s ready to join the big club. So that would put his return at early May, at best.

Holmes’ misfortune – he didn’t even complete three innings of work in Grapefruit League action before his injury – should clear the way for one of the other right-handers who figured to be on the bubble, or out the door due to their lack of options.

That group includes Michael Feliz, Chris Stratton and Dovydas Neverauskas.

Trying to predict success for all but the best relief pitchers is a fool’s errand. Bullpen guys seem to be the most volatile of all positions, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. But if you look back, you can find relievers who are lights-out one year and can’t be trusted to throw strikes the next.

Of the three bubble guys listed above, I would hope the Pirates give the longest look to Michael Feliz. I realize his numbers with Pittsburgh since coming over in the Gerrit Cole trade are not good, but he showed flashes last year that he might prove to be a capable bullpen arm.

Overall on the season, Feliz went 4-4 with a 3.99 ERA, appearing in 58 games and logging 56 1/3 innings. He struck out 73 batters and gave up just 44 hits – both impressive numbers — but walked 27 and allowed a whopping 11 home runs.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder, who turns 27 in late June, had stretches where he was very effective. In a five-week stretch that started June 25 and ran through the end of July, Feliz appeared in 17 games and worked 15 1/3 innings, giving up 10 hits and three walks while striking out 14 and building a 1.17 ERA. He held opposing batters to a .543 OPS during that stretch and gave up two home runs.

Those who’d rather see Feliz on the first bus out of town could craft a strong argument as well, though. In fact, if you go backward from that June 2 and look at his previous 13 outings, you’d see a far different story. In those 13 games, the Dominican Republic native surrendered 14 hits, including two home runs, and 14 earned runs in 14 innings of work. During that stretch, he struck out 18 but walked nine and opposing hitters posted an .857 OPS.

In his final two months of the season, Feliz wasn’t nearly as effective as he was during that five week stretch in late June and all of July. But he wasn’t as bad as he was earlier, either.

In 24 appearances stretching from Aug. 3 through Sept. 25, Feliz worked 22 1/3 innings and gave up 18 hits and nine earned runs while walking 12 and striking out 35. His ERA came in at a respectable 3.63, but his opposition OPS was still high at .824.

Stratton brings a much higher pedigree to the battle, as he was drafted in the first round – 20th overall – out of Mississippi State by the Giants in 2012.

He progressed nicely through the San Francisco system, pitching well at each step as a starter before reaching the big leagues for the first time in 2016, when he appeared in seven games. He spent parts of the next two seasons with the Giants before he was dealt to the Angels in spring training of last year. The fact that he was out of options and figured to be nothing more than a long reliever helped hasten his departure.

Interestingly, the guy the Giants got in return from the Angels in the deal – Williams Jerez – also is in Bradenton as a non-roster invitee with the Pirates. Stratton lasted in Anaheim about as long as a ride on the Teacups down the road at Disneyland, as he was waived in mid-May after appearing in seven games, five of which were starts. He got knocked around, yielding 43 hits and 28 earned runs in 29 1/3 innings for an 8.59 ERA. The Pirates claimed him on waivers, and he wound up making 28 relief appearances, finishing with a 1-1 record and a 3.66 ERA. Overall, his numbers were much more respectable as a Pirate, as he gave up 50 hits and 15 walks in 46 2/3 innings.

I don’t have the heart to go through Neverauskas’ numbers. I realize he has a live arm and some potential, but I’ve seen nothing during his time in Pittsburgh to make me think he’s going to suddenly find what’s been missing. So why do I think Feliz might be the best bet of the three to stick – and be somewhat productive? I go back to that stretch in June when he appeared to be throwing free and easy and more than holding his own. He’s nearly three years younger than Stratton, has a power arm and I like his potential more than the other two mentioned above. Give him a shot in some low-leverage situations – and by the looks of the roster, there could be plenty of those this season – and see what you have. He might prove to be a nice bullpen piece in a couple of years.