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Pirates 2021 Season Preview: Bullpen

What’s the ‘pen looking like this year for the Bucs?

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

Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen

As we push towards Opening Day 2021, all 30 major league teams are trying to finalize a roster. For the Pirates, there are some certainties, like Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds will be there; Chad Kuhl and Mitch Keller will be in the rotation; and Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick will be in the bullpen. However, what other options do the Pirates have for the ‘pen?

These pitchers are the ones who I think will be present on Opening Day, but there is some room for discussion. While it’s clear that some of those players will assuredly be there, not all the roles have been officially decided.

Top Options

Richard Rodriguez

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

Who’s going to close ballgames? Right now, it appears it’ll be Rodriguez, but there’s a case to be made for one or two others as well. But in 2020, Richard Rodriguez appeared in 24 games for the Pirates, posting a 2.86 FIP, 0.86 WHIP, and amassed a 0.5 fWAR. Further, his projections via FanGraphs are the strongest of the bunch expected to be in the bullpen. FG positions him with a 3.97 ERA and 21 saves through 65 innings pitched.

Kyle Crick

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Kyle Crick came over from San Francisco in the Andrew McCutchen deal, it looked like the Pirates were going to receive some benefit in the deal. Although Crick struggled in 2019, while Bryan Reynolds was setting the park on fire at the plate, it looked like the Pirates really won the McCutchen deal; they probably still did. Reynolds expects to bounce back after 2020.

As for Crick, Rob Biertempfel at The Athletic points out that “The most encouraging development this spring is the gradual return of Crick’s velocity,” noting that the velo has been around 93 his last couple outings. In that same article, Crick himself stated:

“Everything is trending up. Last year, when I was ripping on the ball, I could feel it wasn’t as strong as it could have been. This year, I feel stronger in the rip down at the end.”

Michael Feliz

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Feliz is a name we recognize by having come over in the Gerrit Cole swap in which the organization seemed to prioritize quantity over quality – a method the current regime has departed from. Over two full seasons in Pittsburgh, Feliz has been less-than-stellar, totaling a 4.13 FIP in year one and a 4.71 FIP in year two. Current models don’t project him to do much better than that. Feliz could be a seventh-inning guy, but he’s struggled to cement himself as “reliable.”

Chris Stratton

Pittsburgh Pirates v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Stratton might be an overlooked commodity. Over 30 innings in 2020, he controlled a 3.19 FIP and accounted for 0.6 fWAR. Stratton might’ve traditionally been known more as an innings-eater, whether that be as a starter or reliever. FanGraphs currently has him slotted in the setup/eighth-inning role. Given his output from a year ago, this isn’t an unreasonable place for him to begin. The battle for more prominent setup pitcher might be between Crick and Stratton, depending on who can show the right “stuff.”

The Next Group

David Bednar

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates-Media Day USA TODAY NETWORK

Bednar could be the youngest pitcher out of the ‘pen (though not by much). He’s pitched in only 17.1 major league innings but has impressed during this year’s Spring Training. As of this writing, he’s made nine appearances, pitching 8.1 innings while keeping the opposition out of the run column. Further, he currently has a 17:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.48 WHIP.

Duane Underwood

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

Underwood is a recent addition to the roster. Underwood appeared in 29 games over two years with the Chicago Cubs. Over that time, his ERA hovered around 5.50, but his xFIP for each of those seasons was sub-4.00 (3.55 and 3.65, respectively). This means analytics view Underwood more favorably than what the actual outcomes suggested.

Sam Howard

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

Howard pitched in 22 games for the Pirates a year ago, resulting in a 4.81 FIP (3.86 ERA). This is the portion of the bullpen where things could get dicey in terms of who fills these slots. There are arguments to be made that could yield somebody taking this role from Howard. But the lefty reliever currently has a 2.84 ERA through seven spring appearances. It’s feasible Shelton and company give Howard the nod.

Chasen Shreve

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Shreve was a non-roster invitee who was picked up as a free agent after spending time with the New York Mets. His best season might’ve been 2015 with the New York Yankees when he produced a 3.09 ERA over 59 games. But he wasn’t terrible last season with the Mets. His ERA finished at 3.96 through 17 games with a 3.99 FIP. That said, he had a 93 ERA- (with 100 being average and lower being better), meaning there’s likely production left in him.

Don’t forget about...

Two pitchers left off my list are Luis Oviedo and Trevor Cahill. The former being a Rule 5 pick, so it isn’t inconceivable that the Pirates will hold onto him for a while just to see what they can get out of him. The latter being a late addition who could come in as a sixth starter. If the Pirates decide they want to go the direction of six starters, expect to see Cahill slot in ahead of Howard or Shreve, both of whom would be the expendable parties if Shelton decides to go a different direction.