2017 Recaps: Felipe Rivero Was the Highlight in a Poor Year For the Pirates’ Bullpen

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.

  • I don’t understand why the Pirates have stopped their successful practice of taking failed AAA SP and making them into RP.

    E.g., Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Jared Hughes all were SP in the minors, converted to RP, and contributed to 2013-2015 run. Where are their equivalents the last few years?

    • Timothy Wolfe
      October 29, 2017 4:13 pm

      good point….the problem is that we havent had many failures. most of the starting pitchers are pitching well even at high levels

      • I’d argue the complete opposite, to be honest.

        What we’ve seen develop over the last two years with the lack of even middle relievers being sent to Pittsburgh is actually indicative of complete *failure* to develop pitching.

        The 2009-2012 drafts should be the ones, in terms of timeline, to deliver relief arms who’ve failed to make it as big league starters. Of those drafts, only Taillon and Cole have *actually* succeeded as starters, and only Glasnow, Kingham, and Holmes have even an outside shot of being big league starters. Those also happen to be the best conversion cases this club has still in the minors.

        The rest of the drafted arms from that period have either had small spurts of effectiveness or had their careers derailed by injury. There’s nobody else in those classes even worthy of conversion. That, in my opinion, is the ultimate failure; when starters can’t even be salvaged into middle relievers.

        Regardless, it does seem clear that they’ve overcome those problems and have arms available at this time to make the moves needed, which is good.

  • Interesting that fWAR puts Pirates RP as 7th best.

  • I really really really believe Kuhl should transition to the bullpen. I believe his stuff fits better there.

    • You may be right, but if he’s on team next year and Pirates don’t add/subtract from rotation, then he deserves shot in rotation based on his 2nd half performance.

      • 1st Half Chad Kuhl: 4.25 FIP, 4.73 xFIP
        2nd Half Chad Kuhl: 4.24 FIP, 4.48 xFIP.

        The two versions were most certainly *different*, but I’m not at all convinced one was actually appreciably *better* than the other.

        Like so many things, this decision and the entire bullpen discussion in general comes down to what actual direction they take the team next year.

        Chad Kuhl has earned the opportunity to continue starting by turning in a successful, if not flawed, season. There’s an extremely small but possible chance he improves command while maintaining K’s and figures out lefties enough to be a #3, which is a really good starter. A club that isn’t built to contend next year should be running that guy out there every five days.

        But if this club does want to contend, Chad Kuhl to the pen is a no-brainer.

        Think of it this way: Jaun Nicasio was just worth 63% of Kuhl’s value in just 38% of the innings. A strong reliever, like Nicasio, Like I believe Kuhl would be, is arguably *more* valuable than a backend starter. I think Kuhl could match Nicasio’s production out of the pen, and the Pirates don’t have another pen arm not name Rivero who profiles as being more than half that good.

        They do, however, have several starters who profile as #4’s and #5’s.

        *This* is what actual asset management looks like. Not just hoarding everyone.

        • The big question is whether the free agent market has an answer for the rotation and will it come at the expense of offense and how strong does Nova look coming out of the gate. I just think there’s a lot keeping Kuhl in the rotation. Imo he responded really well when his back was against the wall and he’s got the confidence to change on the fly he’s punched his ticket to the next round because I really believe Nova will be the last fa starter addition for awhile.

          • Oh there’s a ton keeping Kuhl in the rotation, not the least of which Neal Huntington. I don’t see any realistic scenario where Kuhl doesn’t start the season in the rotation and little to indicate he’d be moved during the year. Jeff Freaking Locke got more than 120 starts to prove he isn’t a starting pitcher, after all.

            I just can’t quite tell where the narrative around Kuhl ends and the actual performance begins. I mean, look at what Scott said above about his second half improvement. There’s no shortage of people who think he truly did improve. And he might have! But it’s awfully tough to argue that case definitively with numerical evidence.

            You talk about responding well, also far from a unique opinion, but at the end of the day he *still* only threw 157 innings over 31 starts. It’s actually difficult to throw so few innings over so many chances. Only Wade Miley even came close last year. So while it *seemed* like he overcame a lot and he’s a bulldog and whatnot, that all apparently wasn’t enough to get through more than five innings.

            He’s weird, and interesting, and I like him!

            • Yeah I understand there’s color in there and fip forecasts that his era will flip over. My main point like it or not he’s here to stay but he is the type who has upside. Him in the back is a lot more encouraging than Locke for sure

            • I am all about Kuhl to the bullpen, and I think he’d dominate there almost immediately, but I also think–while it’s not reflected in the stats–the pitcher he was in the second half is a more complete use of his talents and is more likely to succeed in the rotation moving forward than the guy in the first half.

              Right now, of guys on the roster, he’s one of the five best rotation options. Glasnow or Kingham stepping up would help alleviate that, but the Pirates need to address the question of whether the guy who would replace Kuhl in the rotation is closer to him, or the guy who he’d replace in the bullpen in. I’m leaning toward the former right now.

              On that note, I think I’d really like Brault out of the bullpen. He reminds me a lot of the good days of Tony Watson, relying on a good fastball with life that he can locate almost exclusively, and I think his tendency to nibble is his only glaring weakness, and one which could be mitigated in shorter outings.

        • You make a good case for moving him to bullpen. I’m just not convinced Pirates brass sees it like you do though.

  • I’m starting to think that there are only two options for Glasnow next year:
    – a trade: only if someone still thinks of him as a top 50 prospect
    – the bullpen

    You can not count on him for the mlb rotation and there is really no point in sending him back to AAA and burning his last option year.

  • Bullpen is going to be the easiest weakness to address through free agency tons of solid righties – Se kwah oh will be out there virtually for free. Lefty will be tougher Brian Duensing is one of few good options but there are a handful of interesting rebound candidates that might be salvageable. I think it’s far easier to have Rivero and not much else than not to have him and be average. I can see this pen turning around quickly after cutting a ton of fat last year.

    • Also the easiest to address with in house candidates.

      • I’m not against in house but my argument is See Kwah Oh for 1m or Santana/Neverauskas for 500. Or why not both and see who gets hot. Unless Brault gets thrown into the pen and if they keep leathersich there aren’t internal lefty options.

  • I think this is the time for tandem starters, which should eat more innings covering up the sins of our bullpen. As you mention with lots of AAA arms, the time is now to use that depth most effectively and innovative-ly to get the Pirates, and this Front Offices’, mo-jo back.

    Also, if the Pirates are not going to be good next year to challenge for the playoffs, I’d look to trade Rivero as it won’t matter if we win 77 wins or 74 wins with him or a replacement, but he would fetch a handsome return to help us retool. No decision is in isolation though (Cutch option, Cole’s contract)

    • I think tandem starters could unravel quickly. You put Glasnow in and he starts to get rocked in the 2nd inning, his partner won’t be ready – so you would have to bridge some innings into the next guy. Then if the next guy starts shaky, you’re stuck.

      • Take it the other way.

        Nova goes twice through the lineup, then bring in the big unit to go through the lineup once, then hand off to rest of bullpen.

        He gets guys who’ve been looking at Nova’s junk (take that in the baseball context please) and he blows them away.

        Do the same thing two days later with Brault starting – Brault twice through the line up with Glasnow taking the third time through.

        • Maybe the real problem is that any sort of formalized, strict tandem system is just too inflexible with a 12-man staff?

          Instead of screwing with the normal 5-starter / 7-reliever staff, it seems like you could get the benefits of a tandem system by having three multi-inning relievers that could be run out for *any* starter who’s struggling into his third time through the order.

          Reliever usage and rest would be based on pitches thrown (stress pitches, more precisely). X number of pitches requires two days of rest, Y number of pitches three, etc.

          When you think about it, it really doesn’t make much sense for all but your high-leverage relievers to throw only one inning. The high-leverage guys need to be available four times a week in certain situations. The only way that’s even possible is through short outings. The rest of your arms can go longer between appearances, and thus longer when they do appear.

          • Just sign Shoehi Otani and you have both your 4th OF and a pitcher, no need for expanded staff 🙂 . [As if Otani isn’t EVERY teams answer this offseason]

          • Tandem SP would only work in September when rosters are expanded.

            I agree with you about having more “long” relievers though. Most back of rotation SP’s are in their role b/c they’re more vulnerable the longer they pitch.

            Need more bridge arms to get to high leverage RP’s. Fortunately Pirates should have several AAA SP’s available to fill these spots next season.

            • I’m not optimistic, but I genuinely hope they don’t keep forcing Clay Holmes into a starter role until 2020 when he’s out of options and already 26 years old like most of their starter conversions.

              The chances of him ever developing starter command are exceedingly slim, but I think he’s going to be an absolute stud out of the pen.

              The best relievers in the game do two things, without exception: miss bats, and keep the ball in the yard. You can thrive despite an elevated walk rate if you do those two things, and Clay Holmes does those two things.

          • Two starters, six tandem starters, a closer, a setup man, and two middle relievers gets you to 12. The starters are expected to go 6+ innings, so you’d expect to use the starter, a middle reliever, and if the situation merits the setup/closer combo. The tandem starters are expected to go 4, so you’d expect to use the two tandem starters but not to use the other bullpen arms except maybe the closer.

            If a tandem starter can’t get through two innings you use one of the middle relievers to go an inning or two while his tandem partner warms up. If a “regular” starter gets rocked early you use the two middle relievers to get through the game – and maybe the tandem starters with the most rest are also your emergency long relievers.

            I think it could be made to work – but I don’t know that any FO has the guts to try it.

            • I think research is needed here. This only works if you have proven guys that start well, make it twice through the lineup (4-5 innings), and then obviously tire because the opponent adjusts the third time through.

              My perception which may not be statistically valid is that our starters did not start well. If they “had it” on a certain day they could last more than five’

            • The problem is: What do you do after 6 innings when you are losing? still use the set up man and closer? destroy the arms of the middle relievers? I don’t see the flexibility left for those games where we are tied or down a run or two late in the game

          • And with enough fringe starters in the system, the team could construct a bullpen like that mostly internally.

    • I think the real piggyback is how deep into the season can Nova be effective assuming the beginning of the season doesn’t go poorly. I think the decision maker have to keep him on a short leash.

  • This is the worst bullpen of the last 10 years for the Pirates. They need a right handed closer and experienced support. This pitching staff might be the lowest paid and least experienced group in baseball.