Yesterday I wrote about how the Pirates had a decent rotation, ranking slightly above average due to all of their regular starters putting up numbers that were around league average.

They didn’t have the same success in the bullpen. As a group, the bullpen ranked 21st in baseball in fWAR. The group finished with a 3.84 ERA and a 4.44 xFIP, which was a far cry from the bullpens in previous years that were led by some of the top relievers in the game.

The Pirates still had one of the best relievers in the game in Felipe Rivero. The lefty had a breakout season, putting up a 1.67 ERA and a 3.03 xFIP in 75.1 innings, with a 10.5 K/9 and a greatly reduced 2.39 BB/9. Rivero had the strikeouts before, but cut his walk rate by one and a half walks per nine innings from last year.

Among qualified relievers in baseball, Rivero ranked 7th in ERA, 14th in xFIP, 9th in WPA, and 11th in shutdowns. He quickly became one of the best relievers in the game, and eventually took over as the closer in Pittsburgh.

Tony Watson started the year as the closer, but followed up on a down season in 2016 with another down year in 2017. He still had enough value to get a trade return at the deadline, going to the Dodgers for young power hitting third base prospect Oneil Cruz and hard throwing low-level reliever Angel German. But Watson wasn’t close to the reliever he was from 2013-15, when he was one of the best in baseball.

The Pirates had some other reliable relievers, but they were few. Juan Nicasio was the best of the rest of the group, putting up a 2.85 ERA and a 3.67 xFIP in 60 innings, before being lost on waivers late in the season. The Pirates tried to trade him in August, but were reportedly blocked by the Cubs, who were rumored to be only offering organizational players. Rather than accept the only deal they could take and let him go to the Cubs, they put him on waivers, hoping an American League team would claim him, and saving the remainder of his salary.

Just after the deadline, the Pirates added George Kontos in a similar move, claiming him off waivers from the Giants, and getting him for free when the Giants opted to let him go without a trade. Kontos finished stong with a 1.84 ERA and a 3.67 xFIP, matching Nicasio’s production.

Beyond those two, the options were weak. Wade LeBlanc and A.J. Schugel had decent numbers, but only good in the sense of middle relief production. On the flip side, the Pirates added Daniel Hudson to help lock down the late innings, and he ended up with a 4.38 ERA and a 4.57 xFIP.

The Pirates also made some questionable decisions in terms of finances. They kept Antonio Bastardo at the start of the year, only to let him walk after nine innings and a 15.00 ERA. They were on the hook for Bastardo’s contract, but keeping him meant they had to part ways with Tyler Webb, who might have a better upside, and who had some trade value, getting dealt for first baseman Garrett Cooper later in the year.

They also added Joaquin Benoit in a minor trade at the deadline, taking on salary in the process. That move didn’t make much sense, as Benoit was no better than the struggling Watson or Hudson, and the Pirates weren’t a team that needed to add. They did get money in the deal, but whatever they paid Benoit looks like a waste, considering their chances of seriously contending required a much better reliever.

The Future

The Pirates have one of the best relievers in baseball with Felipe Rivero. He’s under control through the 2021 season, so the late innings are partially locked down for the next few years.

They also have a lot of promising younger relievers coming up from Indianapolis. Edgar Santana didn’t have the best results in his MLB debut, with a lot of control problems. Dovydas Neverauskas also didn’t have the best results, not showing a good ability for strikeouts, and being prone to the long ball. Angel Sanchez got a chance at the end of the year after showing increased velocity in the minors, but was hit around.

All three of those relievers are hard throwers with the chance for a good strikeout pitch. They could each help fill out the bullpen in 2018, and have the stuff to be late inning guys in the future. The best approach would be to let them come up in smaller roles, and develop their way to bigger roles.

The problem the Pirates have is that they don’t have many candidates for the bigger roles. They have George Kontos under control for two more seasons, and he could be a strong middle relief option and a late inning option. They also have Daniel Hudson on the hook for $5.5 M in 2018, which means they will be hoping for better results out of him next year.

The makeup of the bullpen shows a desperate need for a strong set-up man, at the very least. Adding a solid reliever to pair with Rivero would help improve the bullpen from the top down. It makes Kontos your third best reliever, and seventh inning guy. It then puts guys like Hudson, Santana, Neverauskas, Sanchez, and other middle relievers in a competition to see which one can step up as the top middle relief option, and the next guy up if there is an injury to the top three guys.

The Pirates also have some bullpen depth beyond these guys, mostly in the form of starting pitchers who should eventually make the move to the bullpen. They started that process by moving Trevor Williams to the bullpen this year, only to move him back to the rotation and keep him there when he had success.

As I wrote yesterday, the Triple-A rotation next year could include Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, Nick Kingham, Tyler Eppler, Steven Brault, JT Brubaker, Brandon Waddell, Austin Coley, Alex McRae, and Tanner Anderson. Some of those guys will have to move to the bullpen, which will improve the depth.

The Pirates have a top reliever in Rivero. They have a solid middle reliever in Kontos. They have plenty of depth and young options to fill out the bullpen. What they need is a strong late inning reliever to pair with Rivero and help shore up the bullpen going forward.

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