First Pitch: Prospects Who Can Help the Pirates Bullpen in 2017

The Pirates have some shopping to do once the off-season really gets under way (and that might not be for another month). They need pitching, mostly starting pitching, but also possibly a late inning reliever to add to their current mix of Tony Watson, Felipe Rivero, and Juan Nicasio.

They have a lot of pitching prospects in the upper levels right now. We started to see some of them arrive in 2016, with Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl making the biggest impacts. Guys like Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, and Tyler Glasnow also arrived for brief appearances. All three of those guys should provide starting depth in 2017, with the hope that Glasnow figures it out, and with the option for Brault and/or Williams to transition to the bullpen, if needed. There’s also Nick Kingham returning from Tommy John surgery. If he returns to being close to what he was prior to the injury, he would propel above Brault and Williams as a better starting depth option.

There are also some prospects who have been starters in the majors, but project as relievers in the Pirates’ system, due to the amount of young prospects ahead of them. Frank Duncan is the only one from this group that has pitched in Triple-A, putting up some impressive results this season. The 2017 season should see promotions at some point for Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, Cody Dickson, Alex McRae, and/or Brandon Waddell. Holmes has the best chance to remain a starter from this group.

A rough projection of the minor league rotations shows that not all of these guys will be able to move up into starting roles in Triple-A, and if they move up, some of them might be transitioning to the bullpen. It’s hard to say what kind of relievers the Pirates could get from this group, since starters-turned-relievers are so hard to predict. For example, Tony Watson made the transition in 2010 in his age 25 season in Double-A. He had a 3.78 ERA and a 39:12 K/BB ratio as a starter in 47.2 innings. He went on to become one of the best relievers in the majors just a few years later. I’d be cautious with the current group, project middle relief as the upside, and hope for someone to exceed that.

But what about the chances of exceeding middle relief and finding a late inning reliever? The Pirates do have two relief candidates in Triple-A who fit this bill, and both could arrive in 2017. One is Dovydas Neverauskas, who was just added to the 40-man roster to prevent him from reaching free agency. Neverauskas was always a hard thrower, hitting 95 with poor control at age 18. The control never came with his four seam fastball, and he switched to a two-seamer in 2015, then saw upper 90s velocity with the pitch in 2016, along with much improved control.

Edgar Santana is the other option, making a very impressive jump through the system by going from the DSL to Indianapolis in two years. I wrote about him today, and how he’s having so much success, despite a late start in baseball. He throws mid-90s with good movement and generates a lot of ground balls. He also has a plus slider that is an out pitch, and good enough control of his pitches to be a late inning guy who won’t have a bunch of walks that take away from his high strikeout totals.

Neverauskas only has 30 innings against Triple-A hitting, and Santana only has 16 innings, so don’t expect either pitcher to be up on Opening Day. I wouldn’t be surprised though if the Pirates add one or both of these hard throwers to the bullpen in Pittsburgh at some point in 2017. And in projecting upsides, I think both of them project better as relievers than the current Altoona starters (minus Holmes), as they both have good velocity and better breaking pitches, giving them more of a chance to be late inning relievers.

The Pirates have a lot of pitching depth coming up through the system, and goal number one should be building the rotation. Once that is complete, they can turn some of the extra starters into relievers, and hopefully build a strong and cost controlled bullpen, allowing them to use resources in other areas, rather than spending a quarter of their payroll on the bullpen like they did in 2016. The good news is that they have enough pitching in the upper levels now that they can focus on both the rotation and the bullpen. They’ll still need some outside help heading into the 2017 season, but with guys like Santana, Neverauskas, and all of the Altoona starters, they’ve got a lot of candidates who can step up and provide a big boost from within at some point this year.

**After a Late Start in Baseball, Edgar Santana is One Step Away From Pittsburgh. My feature on Santana today, from my AFL coverage last week.

**AFL: Tanner Anderson Pitches Out of Trouble to Pick Up Victory. The latest AFL results, with another interesting future relief option who I wouldn’t list as more than a future middle reliever right now.

  • Isn’t Santana rule 5 eligible and therefore in need of being added to the 40 man roster?

  • I would think that the Pirates are best served to keep guys like Brault and Williams as starters in the minors until it is fairly certain that they won’t make it as starters in the bigs. Then convert them to relievers and hope for the best. That necessarily will mean that the Bucs will have to acquire relievers as FAs this off season. They spent 25% of payroll on the bullpen b/c they knew their starters were weak and figured they could “get by” with a bullpen. I remember reading that analysis somewhere. They certainly have lots of holes or questions in the pitching staff overall. Cole healthy? Kuhl or Tallion have sophomore swoon? Can Hutchinson get an “out pitch”? Lot’s of hoping there. Doesn’t instill much confidence but maybe most other teams have similar problems.

  • Our bullpen needs as much help as our rotation. I like Watson, but he struggled as a closer. Its no Coincidence that when our bullpen was great, we had a winning record.

  • What will the Pirates do with Duncan?
    =

  • In 2016, the Front Office plan was a mile wide and an inch deep. It lacked a coherent focus, which is a failing strategy for a club with limited resources.

    That must change this year, and the decision begins with what to do with Cutch. If they keep him, and inherently decide to take one last shot at a title with the best player the franchise has seen in two decades, then I think it’s quite possible they can put together a potentially very good bullpen without spending another dime…but it will take focus, and breaking from “the plan”. The key piece, is Mr. Glasnow.

    I’ve far from given up on his potential as a starter, and think there was some massive overreactions around here last summer, but the reality seems to be that he’s still very much a project as a starting pitcher and the track record of kids his size and length quickly figuring out how to harness those long levers isn’t very long. That being said, he’s *absolutely* a weapon in a Major League bullpen *right now*, and would be a perfect candidate for multi-inning, ~100 IP/yr role. Adding him, with Brault and Williams to solidify middle relief and serve as rotation depth, provide the ability to shorten starter outings without killing the pen with pitcher-per-inning outings. Santana and Neverauskus serving as mid-year depth, with upside.

    Instead of spreading strengths thin, I’d like them to maintain an offensive advantage, fill the pen for free, and take their chances on reclamation starters who quite frankly represent their only realistic option in the first place.

    Otherwise, trade Cutch and Cole for prospects, give Glasnow all the time he needs to develop as a starter, and weather the Cubs storm for a few years when they’ll have to rebuild their rotation themselves.

    • I agree that TG could be more successful in the role you describe than as a SP next season. However, what are the unintended consequences of this move? TG may lose confidence after what could be viewed as a demotion. He’s probably not the most mentally tough guy in the organization. It very well may turn him into an even more inconsistent bullpen arm than he was as a SP last season.

      As for punting the next few years away by trading Cutch and Cole, that would be foolish for a whole host of reasons.

      • I mean, he was *already* demoted to the bullpen for a portion of last year and performed better there than he did in the rotation. Did you see any moping? I sure as hell didn’t.

        As for punting and foolishness, two reasonable men can disagree but I see treading water as the most foolish thing this or any small market organization can do. That’s exactly the situation the Pirates put themselves in last year, and it’ll take an incredible series of moves to elevate them above the same with the resources they have available to them this winter. I don’t want to be the A’s and Rays who’ve settled into mediocrity. We’ve literally just seen what a half-assed attempt at contention can do for this club, and I believe a piecemeal approach to their upcoming free agents would do more of the same.

        Be bold, and be rewarded. One way or another.

    • nmr, your style of writing and knowledge is up there with anyone on any site I read. As long as you don’t waste your knowledge attacking other bloggers you are a joy to read.

    • Trading Cutch for prospects would be punting, but trading Cutch for a quality starter would not, it would be intelligent retooling.

      • Retooling to what, is the question.

        This comes down to what you think the true talent of last year’s club was and how that projects to the team in 2017. If you agree with the preseason projects and the actual results, Cutch for an equivalent picture still leaves them marginally competing for the second wild card.

        If you believe they were and will be better than that, then sure, retool away.

        • I think that a majority of position players underplayed to their potential last year, particularly the starters. Only Marte and Kang could be said to have had reasonably successful seasons, though they both could play better. Polanco’s season was an improvement, but his ceiling is a lot higher than his 2016 performance. Bell and/or Freese/Jaso as well as Mercer could play marginally better. Cutch, Cervelli and Harrison could play a lot better. So I think it’s reasonable to expect improved offensive performance in 2017. But the key to contention is the starting rotation. If the don’t improve they are toast. Cutch’s 2016 offensive performance could be replaced by some combination of Bell/Meadows/Frazier (not his 2012 to 2015 performance but reality last year). So if a #2 pitcher can be obtained for Cutch it should be done.

    • Regarding Glasnow, there a plus/minuses with either approach. Your suggestion could help his development by easing him into MLB w/o the pressure of being a starter. But it reduces his IP and opportunity to develop his third pitch. I’d rather seeing him stay in AAA another year and improve. If he doesn’t then try your approach.

  • Ok so I am someone who said we should build up our prospect depth which is what have done. Now I want to swing a big trade for a SP. I hope it happens! Like this team a lot and want a good veteran pitcher to help this young staff!

  • How much improvement can we expect from Glasnow in 2017? Will he mature and develop enough to be effective? That would fill a glaring need.

    • I hope it’s a lot! I want to see a right handed Randy Johnson!

    • That would fill a HUGE AND GLARING NEED. Based on what I saw in 2016, I’m not optimistic. Granted, he is only, what, 22 or 23, so he is still very young. Here’s to hoping!!!!!

  • I know this won’t be popular opinion, but I’m for signing a reclamation project or two in rotation and bringing Melancon back to close. Trade Watson for whatever you can get to save some money, and move Rivero into 8th inning set up role.

    The Pirates could then back fill the bullpen with the guys mentioned in this article without them having to play critical roles right away.

    • Melancon is signing for more than $10 mil ($13 mil?) per season. No way that NH pays that.

    • Pirates can’t afford to buy high on MM, we’re going to sink or swim with Watson no matter what you or I think.

    • They could do this in concert with trading Cutch for a starter. Otherwise the money won’t be there.

      • Not true.

        That’s why I suggested they trade Watson. He’s entering his final year of arbitration and will likely have a salary north of $5 mm. Additionally, I wouldn’t be opposed to trading away Harrison, too. Hanson and/or Frazier can fill his role for far less money.

        Now I will agree they won’t be able to bring back Nova if they sign MM. But I’d rather have MM if given the choice.

        • Yes it’s true. You can pick two of the three: Cutch, New Quality Starter, Melancon. But they can’t afford all three given the increases due to other players like Cole.

          • You’re right, they can’t afford MM and a quality SP. That’s why I said I’m in favor of going the reclamation project path.

      • Yes, they could, but the fact the Melancon is 32, and is going to probably want at least three years, do you really think that it would be a good long term investment to bring him back. In my opinion, it is similar to the Ivan Nova situation. The first year or two, the production will probably still be there. It is in year three that most likely will bring forth decline. The contract then becomes a financial albatross that the Bucs can’t afford.

        • Yeah, I agree. I was suggesting to Scott that it could be done if we shed Cutch, but not that I was in favor of it. I am on the fence on Melancon. He seems to pay close attention to his conditioning and doesn’t have a recent history of arm trouble that I recall so he may well last 3 or 4 years. He could be a luxury the Bucs could afford for a few years if Cutch is replaced with a cost controlled option. But they really aren’t going anywhere important unless they upgrade their rotation. Which since Glasnow isn’t ready means spending big bucs. If they keep Cutch and if I have to choose between spending the money on a quality starter or Melancon, I choose the starter.

  • Do you think that either of Neverauskas or Santana will close for Indy to start the season? Should they?

    • They both probably might get chances at closing, but it won’t be a focus. Getting them innings will be the focus, and if the starter goes deep in the game and it’s their day to pitch, then they will probably close that game. If the starter goes five, they could pitch the sixth through eighth instead. The closer role in the minors rarely is set aside for prospects. At AAA, they usually let veterans take the role, while lower levels use fillers. Prospects have set days to pitch and innings to get.

      The Pirates will use change their role closer to when they are MLB ready, so they get used to coming out of the bullpen when needed, rather than just pitching on their day to pitch.

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