The 2022 ZiPS projections for the Pirates’ pitching staff was pretty sobering. ZiPS appears to see the staff, with only a couple exceptions, as a collection of borderline fifth starters and AAA depth relievers. As bad as the starting pitching looks, the bullpen is worse. So bad, in fact, that once you get past David Bednar, the entire rest of the team’s relievers don’t merit more of a writeup than some Latin gibberish.
This shouldn’t be surprising, as the bullpen was built almost entirely with waiver claims and the equivalent. Late-20s players whom nobody else wants aren’t likely to have any upside. The only reliever other than Bednar who made any impression on ZiPS is Yerry De Los Santos, and the Pirates have left him exposed to the Rule 5 draft. If anybody out there can offer anything, even rank speculation, about what Ben Cherington is trying to accomplish with this bullpen, have at it. If there’s a plan, it’s being kept under deep, deep cover.
There is a cost to this approach, beyond just the obvious one of having a terrible bullpen. The Pirates don’t just pick up a guy here or there, give him a chance and then get rid of him. Because it’s almost the entire bullpen, they keep the 40-man roster cluttered with sub-replacement relievers who are just there to provide sentient bipedal organisms for next year’s ‘pen.
It’d be better if the Pirates could start filling some of these holes with pitchers from the farm system, who can be replaced with other pitchers from the farm system if they don’t work out. I’m not talking about the Contrerases or Priesters, or even the Florencios or Boltons, all of whom are on a different track. I’m talking about guys who’ve shown just enough to be worth a shot on a rebuilding team, and who can be dfa’d without anybody losing sleep over it if they don’t show something in a brief opportunity. Better a 24-year-old fringe prospect than a 29-year-old non-prospect.
I thought I’d run through some of the pitchers in the system who could eventually play a role like that. Most will be prospective relievers, but I may cover a couple potential starters. I’ll do upper-level pitchers this time and the rest the next. In no particular order (* = LHP):
Trey McGough* — McGough was a 24th round draft pick in 2019 and put up a 7.04 ERA in short season ball. So of course I figured that in 2021 he’d just soak up some bullpen innings in class A. Instead, after six games at Greensboro, he joined the Altoona rotation and stayed there. Nearly all his starts were at least solid and he finished very strongly. Strictly a finesse guy, McGough so far isn’t fanning a lot of hitters (7.3 K/9 in AA), but he walks very few and hasn’t had a gopher ball problem, at least not yet. Most of the finesse guys in the organization seem to be plagued by the longball, so that’s a good sign. At this point, I can’t see McGough as more than rotation depth or maybe a middle reliever, but he’s already come farther than I expected.
Cristofer Melendez — The Pirates got Melendez for cash from the Padres after San Diego selected him from the White Sox in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. He’s added velocity since then, reaching triple digits. He blew away hitters for Greensboro early this year, so the Pirates brought him to Altoona for most of the year. His season was a mixed bag; he missed a lot of bats, but walked too many. He was hurt by a very low strand rate but helped by a low BABIP. And did I mention he can hit triple digits? Like De Los Santos, Melendez was eligible for minor league free agency this fall but signed a minor league deal with the Pirates for 2022, still leaving him eligible for the Rule 5 draft. If he finds the plate more in AAA, he could certainly get a chance in what’s shaping up as another bad Pirates bullpen.
Hunter Stratton — It’s a little hard to know what to make of Stratton, a 16th round pick back in 2017. For three years, he walked a lot of guys and put up mediocre numbers, including his K rates. Then this year at Altoona he started fanning everybody, 15.6 per nine innings to be exact. He has good but not huge velocity and he also throws a slider. Stratton pitched decently after a mid-season promotion to Indianapolis. Control remained a problem at both levels. I’m inclined to think that, if scouts think his 2021 performance was real, he’ll probably get selected in the Rule 5 draft. If he doesn’t, he could be another candidate for a bullpen callup.
Joe Jacques* — As the photo above shows, Jacques is an extreme submariner, much more than the great Teke. In college, Jacques’ coaches had him switch back and forth between his current motion and a higher slot several times, which didn’t work to his benefit. He’s only been fully committed to this motion since he became a pro, which is only about 150 innings. After being drafted in the 33rd round in 2018, he zipped through three levels in 2019, so things seemed to be working out. In AAA this year, he pitched well most of the time but had a couple bad stretches, leaving him with more or less league average numbers. He had a big platoon split, but the three-batter minimum hasn’t quite been death to LOOGYs if the manager is adept at getting his lefty in with one or two outs in the inning. Maybe I’m being influenced by nostalgia, but it’d be fun to see Jacques get a shot in the bigs.
Cam Alldred* — A 24th round pick in 2018, Alldred put up just adequate numbers in his first two years. In 2021, he had a 2.18 ERA out of the Altoona bullpen. He did it with just so-so walk and K rates, thanks to a .203 BABIP. He had more trouble in a brief AAA stint, but a 100% strand rate saved him. Alldred was working this offseason on upping his velocity, which may be the key to him getting a chance in the majors.
Zach Matson* — The Pirates picked Matson up in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft a couple weeks ago. Strictly a reliever, he’s generally had very high K rates, big platoon splits and high walk rates. In 2021, the deities of BABIP and LOB% definitely had him on their naughty lists, which is how he ended up with a 5.73 ERA and 3.07 xFIP. He’s a lot more interesting than the typical MiL Rule 5 pickup. If he can get right with the SabreGods, he could reach Pittsburgh.
Aaron Shortridge — Shortridge was a fourth round pick in 2018. He had a very strong second half with Bradenton in 2019, but missed 2021 due to Tommy John surgery. His K rate in 2019 was very low, but the Pirates were impressed with him at the alternate site in 2020. The surgery was in January 2021, so he probably won’t be back until sometime during the 2022 season. He could be at least a depth-type starter in 2023.
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.