The Pirates have fallen flat at every aspect of baseball this year, and that certainly includes the bullpen. Despite great showings by David Bednar, Wil Crowe, and Dillon Peters, their relievers rank 26th in MLB in ERA after the team’s latest embarrassment on Sunday. Last year they were 23rd; no word yet on whether the drop to 26th should be considered “encouraging.”
The need for personnel changes is glaringly obvious . . . . . . well, to most people, anyway. Despite the problems in 2021, Ben Cherington made no meaningful effort to improve the ‘pen in the offseason. He added Heath Hembree, who’s been a disaster, and a few depth guys. The latter have performed the way Cherington’s bargain bullpen additions generally do. Aaron Fletcher got torched in the majors, as he has in all of his previous opportunities. Eric Hanhold and Austin Brice are both pitching poorly in Triple-A.
Happily, there are a lot of relievers in the system who weren’t acquired by Cherington, and who could eventually be helpful in the majors. Cherington also accidentally acquired a few who are doing well. I’m going to stick with the guys who’ve been primarily relievers in the minors, which among other things means I’m not going to look at starters who might move into the 2- to 3-inning model to which the Pirates have shifted so sharply.
To an extent this may be self-defeating, as pitchers who come up through the minors as relievers have a low success rate in the majors. That’s a caveat to keep in mind here. Still, the Pirates only need a small percentage of these guys to succeed in order to make some headway on those low bullpen rankings.
To begin with, the Pirates have — finally — taken a step in the right direction by calling up Yerry De Los Santos. As you all know, he’s been dominant in Triple-A, as he has been throughout his time in the full season minors. The numbers are enough here: 1.72 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 1.1 BB/9, 11.5 K/9. He’s gone two innings in three of his last five outings, so that may help keep him out of the Oviedo Memorial Closet.
The other two most prominent relievers at Indy are Cristofer Melendez and lefty Cam Alldred. Like De Los Santos, Melendez re-signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent last fall. He mostly rides an upper-90s fastball that often hits triple digits. His control deserts him now and then, but he’s improved steadily as he’s moved up. He’s also been pitching often in two-inning stints of late. We’re all familiar with Alldred because he got an abbreviated callup earlier. He’s soft-tossed his way to a 1.33 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in Triple-A. Alldred’s been death on left-handed hitters (3-for-32), which still matters despite the three-batter minimum rule.
A couple other Indy relievers could be candidates to move up at some point. Hunter Stratton started striking hitters out at a crazy rate last year and he’s still doing it — 15.2 K/9 this year. Control is an issue, as he’s walked 14 in 19 IP. He also tends to work up in the zone, so gopher balls could be a problem. Stratton’s opponents’ OPS has gone from .866 in April to .539 in May, and it’s entirely the longball. His numbers are extremely close in the two months except he allowed three homers in April and none so far in May. Cam Vieaux, another finesse lefty, has fared much better this year, having switched to relief. He doesn’t miss many bats, but he has a 1.47 ERA and 0.71 WHIP. There is a lot of BABIP magic in there; .125 is probably not sustainable.
The Curve started the season with an exceptionally interesting bullpen, but a lot of the more intriguing relievers haven’t performed well. Unfortunately, this includes Tahnaj Thomas and J.C. Flowers, who’ve both been mediocre. Austin Roberts, Will Kobos and Enmanuel Mejia have all struggled, and Bear Bellomy has had a terrible time.
But that’s not everybody. Maybe the most interesting is lefty Zach Matson. The Pirates got him in the minor league phase of Rule 5. He’s 26 now and hasn’t reached Triple-A, but he’s taken a big step forward after struggling in Double-A last year. Matson has a 1.84 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 10.4 K/9. In 7.2 IP in May, he’s allowed two hits and a walk, and fanned 11. Righty Colin Selby has been very similar to Matson. In fact, his numbers are close to identical except he’s had slightly more trouble with walks. Selby had Tommy John surgery in 2020, which is mighty good timing if that sort of thing has to happen. He returned in 2021, moving to the bullpen and increasing his velocity to the mid-90s. He was terrible for two months, then very good for the last three. So far this year he’s stayed good.
Two Altoona pitchers have been very successful in long relief. Noe Toribio, who’s still only 22, is a right-hander with modest velocity and a slightly odd four-pitch mix of four-seamer, sinker, slider and splitter. Despite the lack of great velocity, he’s fanned 30 in 24 IP this year, with an 0.92 WHIP. Toribio’s typically pitching about three innings at a time, which the Pirates might like. Travis MacGregor recently moved to relief after lengthy struggles as a starter. His opponents’ OPS went from 1.062 starting to .598 in relief. That’s only from three starts and five relief appearances, but MacGregor is worth watching. He looked like a solid prospect before having Tommy John in 2018.
Low minors relievers are incredibly speculative, which is pretty obvious when you look at the Grasshoppers. Eddy Yean has been awful, so it looks like Cherington whiffed on that one. Oliver Mateo, who was unhittable in the second half last year, hasn’t been able to throw strikes. Ricky DeVito, who came in the Richard Rodriguez trade, has been erratic, but he’s fanned 25 in 20.1 IP after missing much of last year. Cam Junker has also been a little erratic, but his overall numbers are good. Michell Miliano was the least-known player in the Adam Frazier trade. He came with a track record of a very good arm and serious control issues. The control issues were really serious after the trade, but he’s done well over his last four appearances, allowing just two hits and three walks in five innings.
Two lefties could be the most interesting relievers with the Hoppers. Tyler Samaniego has been dominant. He has good size and throws around 94. Opponents have managed just three hits in 15.1 IP against him, although he’s walked nine. He’s also fanned 22. He really needs to be tested at higher levels. Nick Dombkowski is a very different sort. Signed out of college as a non-drafted free agent, he only throws in the upper-80s. He’s still managed to fan 18 in 11.1 IP for the Hoppers, with a WHIP of 0.97. We’ll have to see whether his stuff plays at higher levels.
At this level, bullpens are mostly a matter of figuring out which pitchers have reached the point where they can get through a whole inning without walking everybody. If anybody from this staff makes it as a reliever, it’s likely to be from among the starters. Carlos Jimenez, Luis Peralta, Valentin Linarez and Joelvis Del Rosario all have good arms and could make it as relievers.
Among the current relievers, the best shot might belong to Cristian Charle. He throws 94 mph with a good change. He’s had a couple bad outings among his first ten, but has pitched well in all the others, going as many as three and a third innings. He’s fanned 21 in 16.2 IP, with a 1.20 WHIP.
Pirates Prospects Spotlight
Daily Video Rundown: Andres Alvarez, Tucupita Marcano, Liover Peguero
Pirates Discussion: Pirates 4, Cardinals 18
- BREAKING: Pirates Promoting Outfielder Matt Gorski to Altoona
- Pirates Are Calling Up Roansy Contreras and Yerry De Los Santos
- Draft Prospect Watch: Brooks Lee Has Been Connected to the Pirates All Season
Other Pirates Coverage:
- Cody Potanko: Pirates Takeaways: What are the Pirates Doing Using Wilson as a Starter?
- Cody Potanko: Pirates Injury Update: Cherington Says Henry Davis has Small Fracture on Wrist
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Song of the Day
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.