Depth, experience lead Bucs' bullpen

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Opening Day is one week away, and some key position battles have been sorted out. However, the Pirates' bullpen picture is nearly as blurred as it was weeks ago.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, a few guys have emerged to make the last four spots in the bullpen a real competition, and with the potential for six starting options, bullpen spots will be hard to come by.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll exclude any pitchers mentioned as starting candidates in our rotation position preview. Here’s where the Pirates’ bullpen stands as we draw close to Opening Day.

Locks: Richard Rodríguez, Kyle Crick, Chris Stratton
These three are largely locks because they are the best options to pitch in high-leverage situations throughout the year. That may well be how the “closer” position is defined this year; manager Derek Shelton does not want to put that label on one guy.

“Some of that will depend on who we use during games,” Shelton said, “but it can be four or five guys right now.”

The three are clear-cut options, though. Rodríguez is the only option of the three to record a save last season, racking up four of the Pirates’ six total saves. However, Crick spent most of the season out of action, but he pitched well (1.59 ERA) in only seven games, and he’s pitching well again (1.35 ERA) in seven spring games thus far.

Stratton is more likely to be a set-up man, but he was very reliable for the Pirates last season. His 30 innings pitched were the most on the team by a pitcher who didn’t make a start, and he finished the year with a 3.90 ERA after a 3.66 ERA in 28 games with the Pirates in 2019.

On the bubble: David Bednar, Michael Feliz, Geoff Hartlieb, Sam Howard, Luis Oviedo, Chasen Shreve, Duane Underwood Jr.
One of, if not both, Howard and Shreve will make the roster to provide a left-handed look out of the bullpen. Shreve has more experience and is a potential Trade Deadline piece, but he’s on a Minor League deal. Feliz should also likely make the team, but despite his strikeout-heavy abilities, his run prevention hasn’t been sterling with the Pirates (5.20 ERA in three seasons with Pittsburgh).

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Hartlieb has yet to allow a run in spring entering Thursday’s game, and he made gains from his rookie struggles to post a 3.63 ERA in 21 games last season. Oviedo, a Rule 5 Draft pick, will need to be on the active roster to avoid being offered back to the Indians. Underwood scuffled with inconsistent playing time with the Cubs; now that he has a new slider under his belt, he’s got a shot to rebound with the Pirates.

Depth: Tyler Bashlor, Nick Mears, Sean Poppen, Edgar Santana
All of the pitchers except Bashlor were optioned or reassigned by the Pirates already. Bashlor just recently began throwing bullpens after dealing with some low back tightness, and he’ll need to see game action before he’s on the bubble for a bullpen spot. Poppen has seen a lot of reps this spring, which included a start on Thursday, indicating that the club is interested in what he has to offer.

Santana has had a rough spring in his journey back from Tommy John surgery, as he’s allowed seven runs and a .348 batting average in 4 2/3 innings. Mears could benefit from a bit more time at Triple-A, though the season has been delayed by a month, after he made his debut in '20.

In the pipeline: Roansy Contreras, Max Kranick
One of the key pieces in the haul for Jameson Taillon this January was Contreras, who has been one of the highlights of the spring on the prospect side. The Pirates’ No. 20 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, flashed his strong curveball in his first Grapefruit League outing, then struck out the side after a leadoff walk in his second appearance. He’s routinely sat around 96-98 mph with his fastball.

“Big smile,” Shelton said after Contreras’ first spring outing. “I mean, sitting next to [pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage] and watching that, watching the ball jump out of his hand at 98 and then being able to spin it, yeah it was fun.”

Kranick isn’t much further from the Majors than Contreras. The club’s No. 28 prospect has been almost exclusively a starter in his Minor League career, but that doesn’t mean he will be excluded from consideration for a long relief/starter combo role similar to Cody Ponce last season. Kranick’s superb command has helped him stay below a 4.00 ERA at every level of the Minors.

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