The Pittsburgh Pirates have been active in adding to their bullpen this offseason.
At the end of last month, they tendered contracts to Robert Stephenson and Duane Underwood Jr., while trading Kevin Newman for Dauri Moreta.
Those moves were followed by last week’s additions of left-handed relievers Jarlin Garcia and Jose Hernandez.
With all of the focus on this position, I wanted to break down how the bullpen looks heading into 2023.
My only concern with David Bednar is overuse. The Pirates don’t have a comparable leverage reliever to pair with him, which means every time it is close and late and they have a lead, he is the guy they will call upon.
That hasn’t been a huge issue for the Pirates, as one of the worst teams in the game the last two years. It would benefit them to add another leverage guy to help reduce the workload on Bednar.
The current plan, as you see below, is relying on someone from the middle relief group to emerge.
The Middle Relievers
Wil Crowe, Jarlin Garcia, Robert Stephenson, Duane Underwood Jr.
Some might put Wil Crowe as the setup man, or in a separate tier from the rest of these pitchers. Crowe was used a lot last year, in a lot of roles.
He opened the year pitching in more of a swingman role, and worked in leverage situations, long-relief, middle-relief, and anywhere the Pirates needed him.
Crowe is a solid middle reliever, and what you hope Stephenson and Underwood Jr. become. That trio could give the Pirates a solid middle relief group, and might prevent Crowe from overuse — after he pitched 76 innings last year.
The Pirates added Garcia, who gives the Pirates a stable left-handed option in a bullpen that previously had no lefties.
This group seems like the “Ben Cherington Special” this offseason. Cherington has been adding players who don’t have a lot of upside, but who can stabilize weak positions on the team — of which there are plenty.
Stephenson was a late-season addition, and the Pirates re-signed him this offseason to a one-year, $1.9 million deal. They brought back Underwood for $1 million. The addition of Garcia added $2.5 million to the bullpen.
In total, they’ve committed $5.4 million to this group, with Crowe still being a league minimum player, not counting toward that amount.
The middle relief core looks stable, but there’s still the need for a leverage reliever, which I don’t think the Pirates will find here. At best, the Pirates have what they had last year with Crowe as the complement to Bednar, without having to overuse Crowe.
The Upside Plays
Yerry De Los Santos, Colin Holderman, Dauri Moreta, Yohan Ramirez
These are guys who have some MLB experience, and who could emerge as higher leverage pitchers than the middle relief options listed above. The Pirates have added three of these pitchers since the start of July.
Yerry De Los Santos is the lone pitcher from this group who was already in the system. He’s got a fastball that averages 95 and hits 98, with a slider that has generated a 15.6% whiff rate in the majors.
De Los Santos was inconsistent in 2022, with great stuff, but seven Meltdowns recorded in 26 games. He’s got options, and will surely be pitching in Pittsburgh at some point in 2023. That’s a sentence I can say about all of these guys.
Colin Holderman was added in the Daniel Vogelbach trade last July, and on the surface has a similar profile to De Los Santos. Holderman’s fastball averages 96, touching 99.9, and his slider gets a whiff 15.2% of the time.
Dauri Moreta was acquired more recently in the Newman trade with the Reds. Moreta didn’t get much time in the majors, and might benefit from an adjustment to his fastball. His slider got a whiff four of nine times in his brief MLB appearance in 2022.
The final guy on the list really stood out to me when prepping this article. The Pirates added Yohan Ramirez from Cleveland for cash considerations in July, saying at the time that they liked his stuff and hoped to work with him.
The sinker from Ramirez sits at 96, topping out at 99. The slider gets a swing and miss around 15% of the time. His control has struggled, but he’s shown poise, with eight shutdowns and only two meltdowns in 29 games last year.
These guys all share a very similar profile — hard-throwing relievers with sinking action and a swing-and-miss slider. They should provide a boost to the middle relief group, with the hope that one of these guys can complement Bednar.
The Wild Cards
Jose Hernandez, Nick Mears, Colin Selby
The Pirates added Jose Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft, giving them a second left-hander for the bullpen. Anthony Murphy wrote about Hernandez today.
The Pirates recently added Daniel Zamora, and I’d expect them to add more lefty relief candidates. Hernandez should get a good look with hid roster designation.
Nick Mears is a hard thrower who can generate swing and miss from his fastball-curveball combo. When considering how many pitchers on this roster work with a sinker/slider combo, Mears could play up just by giving a new look. He’s a sleeper to emerge as a leverage option.
The big sleeper here is Colin Selby, who might have more upside than the previous group, even if he doesn’t have MLB experience. The Pirates added Selby to the 40-man in November, protecting him from the Rule 5 draft. His stuff is good enough to project him in the majors in 2023.
Long Relief Options
Chase De Jong, Max Kranick, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson
The Pirates made their signing of right-handed pitcher Vince Velasquez official today, with General Manager Ben Cherington saying that Velasquez will join the starting group.
That was my expectation from the moment they signed Velasquez. I would hope that the Pirates add another starter, in addition to him. They have younger pitchers like Johan Oviedo and Luis Ortiz to compete for the final rotation spot.
The above listed pitchers could also compete for the rotation, and could serve as depth throughout the year.
Zach Thompson and Bryse Wilson were added in trades in 2021. Wilson was acquired for Richard Rodriguez from the Atlanta Braves, and Thompson was added as part of the Jacob Stallings trade with Miami.
The Pirates like both of these pitchers as starters, giving each of them at least 20 starts during the 2022 season. If the Pirates don’t add another starter, I’d expect one of these two to take a rotation spot at the beginning of the season.
That would be disappointing. It would be better to see them as depth. Thompson has options remaining, so he can start in Indianapolis, if needed. Wilson is out of options, and would need to go to the bullpen.
Chase De Jong is also out of options, and was a decent long-relief option in 2022, throwing 71.2 innings. I’d expect him to get a good look for Opening Day.
Max Kranick has an option remaining, and might start feeling the upper-level rotation crunch. With top prospects Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows expected to open the season in Triple-A, Kranick will have to battle with guys like Thompson, Ortiz, and Oviedo for rotation space.
Current Projected 2023 Pirates Bullpen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Chase De Jong
This projection is geared on the final three spots to keep as many people as possible. I think there are guys with higher upside who could challenge for those spots on Opening Day.
What the Pirates ultimately need is for someone to emerge and join Bednar as a high-leverage reliever. This bullpen would look really deep if they were able to bring in a veteran leverage guy to complement Bednar.
Otherwise, they’re waiting for a someone to emerge from within, which is the story with a lot of positions on this team.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.