The Pirates have some unusual relief pitching prospects in their organization right now. Edgar Santana, Dovydas Neverauskas and Yunior Montero have unique backgrounds, each in his own way, but what may be the most unique about them — IF they make it in the majors — is that they’re Pirates relief prospects at all. (The Pirates have other relief prospects as well, such as Jacob Brentz, but I want to focus on prospects originally signed as amateurs by the Pirates. Brentz, of course, came from Seattle in the trade for Arquimedes Caminero.)
The current front office has developed productive major league relievers. It converted Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, both drafted by the previous front office, to relief at the Double-A level. Very few pitchers originally signed as amateurs by the current regime, though, have even appeared as relievers in the majors, much less succeeded.
First, some context. It’s probably safe to say that most teams try, to the extent possible, to develop pitchers as starters; certainly the Pirates do, something they state openly. In the low minors, often the real prospects will all be in a team’s rotation, with the bullpen made up of organizational players, or pitchers who are more lottery tickets than actual prospects.
When you see a pitcher come up the chain from the low minors, putting up good numbers as a reliever, even a closer, it’s best to be skeptical. He’s often in the bullpen because the team prefers to give the starter innings to other prospects. Montana DuRapau is probably a good example in the Pirates’ current system. He’s put up very good numbers, mainly as a closer, but we don’t have him in our list of the system’s top 50 prospects.
So where do relievers typically come from? I looked at the top seven relievers on each of the teams in the NL Central division in 2016 to provide some sort of reference point. It’s not scientific, but there’s no reason to think the results will be wildly different from what you’d find MLB-wide in recent years, and the other divisional teams are a pretty good peer group for the Pirates, especially the Brewers and Reds.
I looked at the point at which each pitcher converted to relief. Interestingly, there weren’t any pitchers who went back and forth much, just a few who moved temporarily to starting but soon ended up back in relief. I also noted whether the pitcher originally signed with his 2016 team. (There was one, Jeremy Jeffress, who originally signed with Milwaukee, was traded away, returned for most of the 2016 season, then was traded away again late in the season. He was one of the Brewers’ top seven relievers on the season and I listed him as originally signing with them.)
Blue = Converted to relief after becoming established as a starter in the majors.
Red = Converted to relief upon reaching majors or shortly afterwards, before becoming established as a starter.
Green = Converted to relief in the upper minors (either Double-A or Triple-A).
Orange = Converted to relief in the low minors (in low Single-A or below) or never started.
Of the seven top relievers on each team, the number originally signed by that team was:
Reds, Cards: 4
Pirates, Brewers: 2
It’s just one division in one year, but some things aren’t all that surprising. The least common category is veterans who became relievers after being established as starters. Of the four, two were Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill, which makes sense because the high-revenue Cubs could afford to pay over $10M for two veterans to pitch in middle relief. The other two are Juan Nicasio with the Pirates and Ross Ohlendorf with the Reds, both of whom got established only briefly as starters in the majors.
The most common category is pitches who were converted to relief when they reached the majors, or soon after. That’s the largest category for every team but the Pirates. Pitchers who moved to relief in the minors, or who never started (a group that includes Mark Melancon), fall in the middle. The pattern overall, at least in the NL Central recently, has been for pitchers to move to relief before ever having much success as a starter in the majors.
In addition, it appears that the wealthy Cubs didn’t need to rely at all on their own development system to provide relievers. Of course, while the Pirates did develop two of their relievers themselves, both of those relievers (Watson and Hughes) were drafted by the previous front office. The Cards, by contrast, have been highly successful in bringing up pitching prospects such as Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness, and moving them to the bullpen at the major league level.
In fact, the list of successful major league relievers signed and developed by the Pirates’ current front office is extremely short, just two in fact: Justin Wilson and Vic Black. Wilson remains a key reliever for Detroit. Black went to the Mets for Marlon Byrd and pitched well for them over most of the 2014 season. Arm problems did him in, though, and he hasn’t pitched anywhere since 2015.
There have been very few pitchers signed and developed by this front office who’ve even appeared in the majors as relievers. Here’s the full list:
Pounders and Carle so far have had only the proverbial cup of coffee. Cumpton and Sadler were helpful to the Pirates for limited stretches as depth-type swing men and are currently coming back from surgery. Glasnow, of course, remains a starter. Barrios, who signed with the Pirates as an infielder, made five appearances for the Brewers in 2015 after going to Milwaukee for Aramis Ramirez, but he’s been hurt ever since.
I don’t have any great suggestions as to why the Pirates haven’t had more success developing their own relievers. Maybe it’s a stronger-than-normal determination to keep pitchers in the rotation once they get near the majors. (That may change a little with Trevor Williams, although he came from the Marlins.) Maybe they just haven’t drafted that well, with the 2009 draft class being a prominent failure. They definitely focused, or had more success, primarily with position players for a number of years with their international scouting, producing little in the way of pitching. (That trend may be reversing itself.) The one certain thing is that they haven’t availed themselves of a source of bullpen talent that’s been very useful to their competitors in recent years.
Circling back, though, it’s possible that Neverauskas, Santana and, as more of a long shot, Montero could change that soon. The fact that the three have such interesting stories may simply highlight the fact that many of the best relievers are products of circumstance, a factor that may soon start to work in the Pirates’ favor.
Neverauskas, of course, signed with the Pirates at age 16 back in 2009 out of the not-exactly-baseball-hotbed of Lithuania. The Pirates tried to develop him as a starter, but inconsistent command and velocity hampered him. They moved him to relief after a rough season in the rotation in low-A. He moved quickly through the system after that and he recently became the first player born in Lithuania to play in the majors.
Santana never even played baseball until he was 19, which can’t be all that common in the Dominican Republic. He signed with the Pirates days before turning 22, a late age for a Dominican prospect, due to his father requiring him to attend college first. Less than three years later he was in Triple-A and arguably is the team’s best relief prospect. If he was on the 40-man roster, he’d be a near-lock to pitch for the Pirates this year, and he might be anyway.
Montero is still more of a lottery ticket compared to the other two, but he may have the strangest story. The Pirates originally signed him way back in 2010, but MLB voided his contract twice because it couldn’t verify his age. It was strictly a matter of the right paperwork being unavailable, rather than a real question over his identity or age, which used to be a common problem in the Dominican. By 2014, Montero had pitched in only one game, a start in the Dominican Summer League in which he threw five shutout innings. He progressed a little slowly at first, but so far this year he’s striking out hitters at a prodigious rate, thanks to a fastball that lacks Neverauskas’ or Santana’s velocity but has great life.
So there are some pitchers in the pipeline who may change the way the Pirates have been building their bullpen. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to find a Felipe Rivero or a Juan Nicasio elsewhere, but hopefully it’ll make the construction job easier to have some internal options.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.