When the Pirates broke camp and started the 2018 season, they did so with an eight-man bullpen that included two long men in Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow, three back-end relievers in Michael Feliz, George Kontos and Felipe Rivero, and a bunch of arms in the middle that seemed to be pretty closely matched and hard to separate from the larger group that had included Kyle Crick and non-roster invitees Richard Rodriguez and Kevin Siegrist that all missed the cut.
Though the Pirates have played just 14 games, the complexion of that bullpen has already dramatically changed.
Brault has been moved to the rotation, with Joe Musgrove still looking to be a few weeks away from a return. Clay Holmes has been called up, made his MLB debut and was sent back out. Smoker has been optioned to Indianapolis. Crick and Rodriguez have been recalled, and the Pirates have claimed lefty reliever Enny Romero off waivers from the Washington Nationals.
One could make a compelling argument for patience. After all, the Pirates are off to a 10-4 start and played their first 11 games in conditions ranging from miserable to downright unplayable.
“We always hate to make moves this quickly into the season,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday on his radio show on 93.7 The Fan. “When it’s just a handful of outings, you don’t want to overreact. You want to give people a chance to settle in.”
But that didn’t stop Huntington from making a trio of moves over the last three days to change the complexion of the front and middle of his bullpen. Part of the reason he was willing to make such an early move was the fact that there wasn’t a lot of separation between Smoker and the players that were behind him as the Pirates chose their team.
“In Smoker’s case, as we talked coming out of spring training, it was a really hard decision to choose between (Edgar) Santana, Crick, (Dovydas) Neverauskas, Smoker and Rodriguez, actually,” Huntington said. “We felt that it was probably in our best interests to get Kyle up, send Josh out, let him take a deep breath, let him try to push reset. He’s going to help us again at some point in time.”
The biggest issue with Smoker is that he wasn’t missing any bats. He didn’t record a strikeout in four innings and the whiff rate on his four-seam fastball was a tough-to-believe zero percent. His curveball, slider, and splitter (which Pitch f/x seems to have a hard time differentiating) also saw reduced whiff rates from his 2017 numbers with the New York Mets.
Crick was a logical choice to replace Smoker, as the Pirates next-most-talented option in Triple-A and the centerpiece of the Andrew McCutchen trade this offseason. The other two moves, though, show a clear preference for bringing exactly what Smoker could not: strikeouts.
Romero struck out 26.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2017, and his 10.51 strikeouts per nine innings was third on Washington’s staff — just ahead of Stephen Strasburg.
“(He’s) a left-hander with a power arm that had struggled with a new staff this spring, struggled in his couple of outing so far, but really did a nice job for the Nationals group last year,” Huntington said. “We’re going to bring him in and see if he can be a reliever and help us, and not just be a left-on-left guy. He actually does as well against right as left.”
The refining will need to happen in the command department. Romero landed in D.C. after walking 13.7 percent of his batters with Tampa Bay in 2016. He reduced the walks in 2017, but he’s also been wild in the zone, leading to some hard-hit balls against him. He still brings in an arm that can hit 102, but it does come with question marks.
“A power arm that, if we can help him refine it, can be a nice reliever for us,” Huntington said. “If not, we’ll continue to make some adjustments and find the best bullpen that we possibly can.”
In Rodriguez, the Pirates might have the best of both worlds, but it comes with the caveat of not having much major-league experience. In five innings in Indy, he had two walks and nine strikeouts. He struck out 28.1 percent of the hitters he faced in Triple-A in 2017 in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization and walked just 6.3 percent.
“He’s a guy that throws strikes with his fastball,” Huntington said. “He has a riding fastball, which has a chance to have good success out of the bullpen. He mixes in a quality breaking ball.”
It looks as if the Pirates won’t hesitate to keep pulling the trigger on these bullpen moves until they find a mix that works for the early innings. Another player will need to head out when Romero is added to the roster Monday for the Pirates’ first of a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies in Pittsburgh.
In the meantime, Huntington cautioned to not to look too much into the team’s 6.36 bullpen ERA, which is dead last in the majors. After all, a lot of that was earned by the back-end of the bullpen, which hasn’t been altered except for Rivero changing his name to Vázquez. He and Feliz each had four-run first appearances that continue to loom large in figuring the team’s overall numbers.
“There’s eight earned runs between two really good relievers that have been solid since then,” Huntington said. “We’re working to put those other guys in place.”