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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

WTM: Can the Pirates Relieve Themselves in 2023?

The Pirates’ bullpen problems in 2022 are all pretty fresh in our minds at this point.  The ‘pen wasn’t especially good for much of the year, but a 5.30 bullpen ERA from August 10 until season’s end will make an impression.  So the question is what we can look forward to (OK, maybe not the best choice of words) for 2023.

There are lots of potential sources of relievers for the Pirates.  In general terms, there are relievers already on the roster who are cheap.  There are potential waiver claims, who are always cheap.  There are prospects who can be called up and who’ll be cheap.  There are always a few veteran free agents who’ll sign on the cheap.  And there’s the chance of trading for somebody who’s cheap.  Loads of possibilities here.

Of course, there’s that pesky 40-man roster to deal with.  In order to trot out many dozens of relievers over the course of a season, they have to be on the roster.  Currently, the Pirates have 15 relievers on the roster, and that’s not counting Bryse Wilson, Miguel Yajure or Peter Solomon, who they claimed on September 4th and see as a starter.  This brings up an important strategy element.  Why, exactly, is important to use up close to half your 40-man roster space on replacement-level and sub-replacement-level relievers?  Isn’t the entire concept rooted in the idea that replacement-level players are easily replaced?  Doesn’t it necessarily follow that stockpiling replacement-level players is irrational?

There IS a solution to this puzzle.  There are prospects in the minors who aren’t on the 40-man roster and only need to be added when you call them up.  These players have yet to really fail in the majors, but don’t get the same chances as guys who were previously on other team’s 40-man rosters. With the added advantage that these players don’t have to be carried on the 40-man roster, isn’t this a good avenue to look for in getting bullpen help and depth for the major league team?

So are the Pirates situated to rely on their upper minors for relief?  It certainly looks like it.  I’m going to skip over all the veteran waiver guys, as well as guys who clearly should get a shot at the start in 2023, like Colin Holderman and Yerry De Los Santos.  I’m also mostly going to ignore the possibility of moving starters to the bullpen.  One of the best possibilities in that regard, Max Kranick, will probably miss the season anyway.

So here are some current minor leaguers who could provide bullpen depth for the Pirates in 2023:

Nick Mears:  Signed as an NDFA, Mears got on the radar due to summer ball.  He’s 26 now, but he has surprisingly limited experience, just under 100 innings in the minors and 30 in the majors.  He’s had a lot of disruption the last few years, between the pandemic, getting called up prematurely in 2021, and missing much of this year due to non-TJ elbow surgery.  (He had TJ back in college.)  He’s always missed bats; his issues have been control and left-handed hitters.  This year’s been mainly about rehab for him and he seemed to be coming around late for Indianapolis.  A “normal” routine for a change might put him in a good position for the early season next year, maybe even the start of the season.

Blake Cederlind:  I’m sure most of us remember Cederlind generating some excitement in spring training in 2020, reaching triple digits.  He seemed in line to take a regular spot in the pen that year.  Then came COVID, which he caught in camp, then TJ.  He hasn’t had a routine recovery, with some setbacks that kept him from getting any game action this year, so Cederlind hasn’t really pitched since 2019.  The Pirates have affirmed that he’ll be ready for camp next spring, but he’s obviously an unknown quantity now.

Blake Cederlind

Joe Jacques:  With unorthodox deliveries, you really don’t know what to expect, probably in large part because scouts and coaches are out of their comfort zones trying to evaluate a guy.  There’s a reason Kent Tekulve reached the majors at age 27.  Jacques is a lefty submariner who was drafted in round 33 (and, oddly, he’s 27).  He missed the first half of 2022 with an unknown injury, but pitched well when he returned.  He’s had some big platoon splits and would need to be utilized as a LOOGY, or whatever the three-batter-minimum version of one is now.

Joe Jacques

Cam Vieaux:  The lefty Vieaux was a starter until 2021.  Once he got to the upper minors, he ran into the Finesse Pitcher Death Spiral.  Hitters wouldn’t chase any more, so he’d struggle with walks and hitter’s counts until he got too much of the plate and got hammered.  He’s done much better as a reliever and reached Pittsburgh, although he got outrighted.  As Ethan Hullihen noted the other day, Vieaux is eligible for free agency.  In fact, he could have declared right after the season ended, but didn’t.  Possibly, the Pirates are looking into bringing him back on a minor league deal next year.

Cam Alldred:  Another lefty, and one who’s basically very similar to Vieaux.  Unlike Vieaux, Alldred pitched out of the bullpen almost from the start.  He earned a shot with the Pirates this year, but ended up being outrighted.  His numbers in AAA weren’t great this year but they were inflated by two major meltdowns.  Alldred at worst should be a decent depth guy in 2023.

Cody Bolton:  Of the potential relievers who were at Indianapolis in 2022, Bolton and the next guy are arguably the most interesting.  The Pirates seem to have accepted that Bolton may not stand up to starting, although it’s hard to say that for sure.  He did put up 75.2 IP, which is pretty good for a guy who hadn’t seen game action since 2019.  Apart from the occasional outing where he couldn’t throw strikes, the numbers were very good, including a 9.8 K/9.  Opponents didn’t drive the ball much against Bolton, with just four home runs and a .309 SLG.  He also had no platoon split.  Bolton should be in the running for a bullpen spot next April, so leaving him off the roster this fall would be incredibly foolish.

Osvaldo Bido:  Bido is an incredibly interesting pitcher, and also very erratic.  He signed at 21, then moved up very quickly.  He’s always had a very good arm, but command has been elusive.  His K/9 pushed up to 9.9 this year, but it came with a lot of walks.  Just in his last five starts this year, he had one with six, one-hit, shutout innings and seven strikeouts; one where he gave up just an unearned run over 5.2 IP, with ten Ks but also four walks; and his final start, when he allowed five earned runs over an inning and a third.  He had a 7.36 ERA in July, followed by 2.61 in August.  In August and September combined, Bido fanned 54 in 43.2 IP.  I can’t see adding him to the 40-man roster now.  Apart from the erratic track record, he’ll be 27 in a few days.  He seems like the sort of guy where a Rule 5 selection would be the wrong outcome for everybody involved.

Osvaldo Bido

Tahnaj Thomas:  Altoona had a lot of bullpen problems in 2022, but the two reliable relievers were Thomas and the next guy.  Thomas had a good season; all of his numbers, significantly including the BB/9, were solid or better.  Other than a very bad month of May, Thomas was tough all year, with a WHIP below 1.00 in three of the season’s five full months.  (Thomas threw only three and two-thirds innings in September.)  The upper-90s velocity is still there, and so is the athleticism that should help him get the most out of what his arm offers.  It should be tough for the Pirates to leave Thomas off the 40-man roster, especially considering some of the flotsam they have on the roster.

J.C. Flowers:  Flowers’ K rate took a sharp drop this year (to 8.1 K/9), but he had a very good, and consistent, season.  April was his worst month, with a 4.05 ERA.  He was never above 3.00 in any month after that.  That’s another tough Rule 5 decision for the Pirates, with a guy who’s 24 and hasn’t pitched above AA yet.

Zach Matson:  The lefty Matson was a minor league Rule 5 pick with a history of running up very high K rates, and walk rates with them.  He seemed like an inspired pick when he registered a 1.84 ERA in 11 games with Altoona.  After a promotion, Indy was a different story.  Matson’s ERA there was 5.44 and his K/9 dropped dramatically to 6.3.  So he’d certainly need some time in AAA to show he can bounce back.  Also, he’s eligible for minor league free agency, so the Pirates would have to sign him to a minor league deal for 2023.

Colin Selby:  One of the relievers with, possibly, immediate potential, Selby caught a break, sort of, when he had Tommy John during the pandemic year, so he lost one year instead of two.  He spent the first two months of last year struggling through his return, then started pitching very well.  This year he missed another two months due to an unknown injury, but pitched well at Altoona otherwise.  He gets into the upper-90s and misses plenty of bats.  The Pirates sent him to the AFL to get more time in.  He’s yet another guy who’d make far more sense on the 40-man roster than most of the relievers already there.  If the Pirates leave him off the roster, I’d be surprised if they didn’t lose him.

Colin Selby

Noe Toribio:  A finesse righty, Toribio moved up through the system very quickly.  He was outstanding in relief with Altoona in the first half of this year, but had a terrible time after moving up to Indianapolis.  His ERA went from 1.85 to 6.75, and his K/BB from 3.54 to 1.03.  He’d have to show the first half Toribio was the real one before it’d  make sense to give him a shot at the majors.

Tyler Samaniego:  Apart from Bolton, Samaniego is probably the best prospect listed here.  He was unhittable with Greensboro early this year, then pitched very well for Altoona.  In fact, he was nearly unhittable there, too, except for two meltdowns.  He gave up nine earned runs in two and a third innings in those two games, just four earned runs in 28.1 IP the rest of his time at Altoona.  For the full year, opponents batted 114/221/177 against him.  When you start breaking down Samaniego’s numbers, you run into a lot of oddities.  To take one example, his walk rate dropped by over half from Greensboro to Altoona, which is good, but his K rate dropped by nearly half, which isn’t.  Still, he’s a 6’4″ lefty who gets into the mid-90s and has a very good slider, and he’s gotten great results so far.  There’s no reason he shouldn’t get a serious look next March.

Nick Dombkowski:  Another finesse lefty, as well as an NDFA, Dombkowski got great results at Bradenton and Greensboro, and good ones at Altoona.  He’s missed a lot of bats despite not having great velocity, but like all finesse guys he’ll have to keep showing his stuff will play at the next level up.

Nick Dombkowski

Pirates 2022 Bullpen Depth

So, out of the above group, could the Pirates replace the waiver claims and minor league free agents they used to populate their bullpen in 2022?  Just keep David Bednar, Holderman, De Los Santos and maybe one or two others, cut all the rest loose, and replace them from this group?  Or maybe something a little less drastic, but still with the focus on finding relief in their own system rather than strictly from guys the other 29 teams don’t want?

I don’t even think it’d be very hard.  Ben Cherington’s waiver wonders had a 5.04 ERA in Pittsburgh this year.  This group could certainly duplicate that, at least, and might add some upside, which has been entirely missing for three years.  Most of the pitchers above probably won’t make it in the majors, but there’s a very good chance two or three might.  And that’d be two or three more than Cherington’s found in his endless wanderings on the waiver wire.

+ posts

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.


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There are a few interesting arms here, but nothing that will really move the needle. If you’re counting on your minor league depth BP arms to make a difference, you’ll be really disappointed. They need to make additions from outside the organization.


That’s the problem with this organization. They are counting on minor leaguers to fill the holes and that doesn’t work. Most of these playoff teams are built with way less than 50% of their roster being home grown prospects. Sure there are interesting arms in the minors but as we all witness year after year, there is a big difference between AAA and mlb.


Some live arms. But a lot of the arms seem mostly dead.


Every org in baseball has live arms.


Of all the problems with this team, the bullpen should be the easiest to fix. Hopefully they can get the right mix quickly and not go through another year of calling up guys on a weekly basis.


Why would another team trade or release a two-pitch guy with a big FB? Do you have candidates in mind who are upgrades from Flowers and Thomas? No fair citing other Bucs’ minor leaguers, though I might be persuaded.


Absolutely they can, they have been for years doing that to their fans…


Very good article.

The bullpen is the key to 2023 and this gives us readers a good idea of what the system has.

I still believe the pirates should sign a veteran GOOD closer, move bednar to a more hybrid rule and sign a good lefty reliever, Keep 2-3 guys from last year(. DLS, Crowe, Holderman, underwood, and open up the last 1-2 spots for whichever internal options have the best spring.

We all know that most of the guys mentioned in the article will get a chance at some point in 2023 due to ineffective pitchers and injuries. they all don’t need to be on the opening day roster, But as soon as a guy becomes ineffective then I hope they give some of these guys a chance sooner than later.


Yes, add a closer-type to share 8th/9th inning duties with Bednar (like Watson/Melancon) and then fill in the rest of the pen with in-house guys and it should be solid. Maybe Holderman or Yerry or even someone like Ramirez or Crowe could fill that role, but I’d feel a lot better with a proven player in that role.

Lots of interesting FA options and I’d have to take a deep dive to make a better recommendation, but off the top of my head I might take a chance on Taylor Rogers. He was terrible with the Brewers and mediocre with the Padres this year, but was very good before that and overlapped with Shelton in Minnesota.


Taylor Rogers is terrible. I would rather look for an internal option than him. The only good thing about him is he has shown good control in the past, but he also has blown a lot of saves every season he has been a closer.


He may not be a closer but he’s averaged over a WAR per season as a reliever. We had one reliever earn more than a WAR this season, Bednar. His 2019 season was as good as any Pirates’ reliever in the last decade. His 2021 season would have ranked 3rd behind a season by Hanrahan and a season by Melancon. Rogers was terrible with the Brewers, but his overall record is quite good.


Couldnt hurt as a low cost flyer


You could say the Pirates relieved themselves on us fans with that bullpen after July.


Nickles would parlay that into a Depends sponsorship.


WTM – I was hoping you would speak to Mlodzinski and Nicholas. Think Nicholas is limited as starter but could be a good reliever.


Sure you will do article on starters soon. Would also like to see article on last year’s draft picks as pitchers. How is their progress?


Nice article, thanks.
Maybe these 5-6 pitchers who are eligible R5 will need to be added to the 40 man? Burrows, Bolton, Thomas, Selby, Samaniego, Omar Cruz(?).
They have some position players to add also. But it seems to me they have a good 8-9 players they can DFA or trade because of redundancy, so it should work out ok.


What they should do and what they will do I fear will not be the same.


Add 2 mid-level starters, and most of the bullpen problems are solved with starter depth being part of the MLB bullpen, and then as you say, most of the back fill can be with guys in this article or similar. Last year I get the waiver wire claims, since most of these guys were not ready, but this year it shouldn’t happen. Finding 2 mid-level starters is paramount, and so we find out this year if the team will truly spend money on FAs to be above 500 and in the running for a playoff spot.


Once you clean out the seat fillers, which they physically cannot avoid, the front end of the Pirate pen will have Bednar, Crowe, De Jong, Holderman and de los Santos. They also have Thompson, who can be optioned; Wilson, who can’t but started throwing a new splitter toward the end of the season, and Underwood, who has been overused and disappointing. Still no lefties. I think BC is going to grab/keep a lefty reliever (or two), which means none of the guys mentioned in this article will start the season in Pittsburgh.

b mcferren

sign Contreras and Kimbrell


I’m a fan of Ortiz starting the year in the bullpen if he isn’t selected to be in the OD rotation. He has the makings of being a great RP if he doesn’t develop a 3rd pitch.




I’ve asked for this article, and is a good one, thanks! I understand why you didn’t include starters, but it wouldn’t surprise me if pitchers like McGough, Mod and others end up as good relievers in Pittsburgh.

Ethan Hullihen

Vieaux did end up electing free agency, just a few days later than everyone else.

Also, when did McGough undergo TJ?


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